COSATU calls mass action over labour laws


By Norm Dixon

South Africa's trade union movement will hold mass rallies on May 12 in protest at the African National Congress-led government's failure to incorporate its "big issue" demands into the draft Basic Conditions of Employment Bill made public on April 18. The central demand of the Congress of South African Trade Unions is for the introduction of a 40-hour week.

The draft bill, while a considerable improvement over its apartheid-era counterpart, falls short of COSATU's expectations. It reduces maximum weekly working hours to 45. Currently, the work week ranges from 46 to 68 hours depending on the industry. There are at least three different labour laws operating.

Other provisions include: an increase in the overtime pay rate from time-and-a-third to time-and-a-half; an increase of unpaid maternity leave from three to four months; removal of the ban on Sunday work but retention of penalty rates for work on that day; two weeks of paid sick leave per year after three years' continuous employment; increased annual holidays from two to three weeks; and a minimum working age of 15.

The bill promotes "flexibility" by permitting the variation, downwards as well as upwards, of all standards other than provisions relating to child labour, forced labour and maternity leave. Standards can be varied through negotiations between employers and unions, by the order of the minister of labour and through exemptions for certain industries. Collective agreements will allow hours and overtime to be averaged over four months.

COSATU has campaigned for the draft bill to include "big issues" such as: a 40-hour week; retention of Sunday as a "special" day; 16 years as the minimum working age; variations to standards upwards only and only by collective bargaining; and six months' maternity leave, with four months paid.

COSATU had at first threatened a 24-hour general strike if its demands were not incorporated into the draft. However, on April 19 COSATU general secretary Sam Shilowa announced that action would be scaled down to a half-day work stoppage, with mass rallies beginning at noon in most major cities.

On April 18, COSATU's Witwatersrand region (Johannesburg-Pretoria) held a 24-hour strike to press the demands. In Nelspruit, Mpumalanga province, workers also struck for 24 hours, and 1000 marched on the Mpumalanga premier's office.

The response of South Africa's major employer bodies to the draft bill was mixed. In a joint statement, Business South Africa, the peak employer body, and the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce, the voice of the newly emerging black capitalists, complained about the decrease in working hours and the increase in leave entitlements and other "premiums", calling for all improvements to be tied to increases in productivity.

The Afrikaanse Handelinstituut, representing Afrikaner capital, criticised the introduction of greater regulations but said averaging of working hours and the possibility of variation of standards was "positive".

The South African Chamber of Business expressed concern over higher labour "costs" but praised the absence of a legislated 40-hour week. SACOB president Philip Krawitz said the bill was "a genuine attempt to find a middle course between competitiveness and enhancing the quality of life for workers".