Lehlohonolo Molefe. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Lehlohonolo Molefe. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

On the day the FM arrives to meet SA’s new registrar for labour relations, his office resembles an overflowing filing cabinet. Files dating back to 2012 are all over the place.

But advocate Lehlohonolo Molefe, the man entrusted with restoring regulatory compliance among SA’s employee and employer organisations, in the interest of healthy labour relations, says a "huge task" awaits him.

Molefe was appointed as by labour minister Mildred Oliphant in May.

Picture: Business Day/Freddy Mavunda
Picture: Business Day/Freddy Mavunda

Two months into the job, he has unearthed a backlog of cases dealing with the state of SA’s 193 trade unions, 153 employer organisations and 54 collective bargaining councils. He takes up the role after months of paralysis in the labour registrar’s office due to disputes between his predecessor, Johan Crouse, and Oliphant.

Molefe’s job is to ensure that registered labour relations organisations comply with the Labour Relations Act (LRA) by being accountable for their finances, operating in line with set constitutions and championing the rights of their members. This includes looking into a union movement that has been in free fall for years, as corruption, fraud and infighting became the order of the day.

Employer bodies have failed to submit audited financial statements, as required by law.

Molefe glances at the copy of the LRA on his desk as he explains in an interview with the FM that he’ll be guided by the prescripts of the law.

The position he occupies has been vulnerable to political interference in the past, with the dispute between Crouse and Oliphant rooted in the minister’s instructions to the labour registrar on how matters should be handled.

Crouse was in the midst of an investigation into the affairs of the Cosatu-affiliated Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood & Allied Workers’ Union when he was suspended. He was later reinstated by the labour court.

Even the backlog will most likely be an issue of how many people we have to deal with the work
Lehlohonolo Molefe

Molefe, a long-time employee in the legal services unit at the labour department, is well aware of the challenges that come with the post.

"It’s a huge task ... I am conscious of the fact that people will want me to attend to specific issues which are in the public domain. I also need to make sure I do a thorough job in all of them. I cannot delegate some of the things, I need to do them myself so that when questions are raised I am able to answer," he says.

Molefe says his LLB, obtained at the University of the Western Cape, will help ensure that he upholds the highest standards when applying the law. He was admitted as an advocate in 2009, three years after joining the labour department as an inspector.

His passion for workers’ rights is why he sees it as his mission to ensure his new office has the required capacity. It currently has no budget and relies on staff of the department’s collective bargaining division.

"We should have dedicated staff for the office of the registrar, not staff we are sharing between the collective bargaining council matters. Those are some of the things I intend changing.

What it means

The business of labour is in an almighty tangle and will take time and resources before it can be fixed

"Even the backlog will most likely be an issue of how many people we have to deal with the work. If you have that limited number of people, what are the chances that they’ll be able to work through the backlog?"

When his appointment was announced, the department said Molefe would have to ensure the optimal use of the collective bargaining framework to "promote co-operative labour relations and economic efficiency and growth. It is also to promote strong unionism and employer organisations, and promote the establishment of councils ... to achieve sound and stable labour relations."

It’s unclear how Molefe will be able to achieve these goals if he isn’t given the funds to hire more people.

His contract is for two years, after which the minister can extend it or replace him.

But until then, he hopes to "restore the integrity of unionism, ensure employer and employee organisations have sound relations, and that bargaining councils run smoothly to address the needs of the people who really need it.

"Those are the things that, when I leave, I should be able to say, I have [done] the best that I could," he says.