S. Africa government proposes reforms for the workplace Included in plan: extra vacation, shorter week, longer maternity leave


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- What has been perhaps the world's most unfair workplace is being reformed to make it a model of modern employment standards.

Nelson Mandela's post-apartheid government proposes a new deal for this nation's 10 million workers with a shorter workweek, more generous overtime, a week's extra vacation and longer maternity, sick and family leave.

"It demands of everybody the need to change step from an exploitative atmosphere to one which promotes social justice," said Labor Minister Tito Mboweni.

For the first time, the lowest-paid employees -- the country's 2 million domestic and farm workers -- would be covered by the reforms. And the conditions of their traditionally casual labor would have to be defined in written contracts.

"We cannot develop at the expense of social justice," Mboweni said. "We cannot compete without a floor of basic human standards."

'Social justice'

The pursuit of "social justice" is at the center of the ruling African National Congress' political, economic and social transformation of South Africa after the apartheid era, during which the white minority subjugated the black majority.

Reforms ranging from housing to education, from land redistribution to welfare and the workplace, are meant to produce what the government terms "a better life for all our people."

Said Mboweni: "A better life must also mean a better life for working people. It mustn't be a hollow slogan that doesn't have any relevance at all to working people."

The major proposed changes include a reduction of the workweek from 46 hours to 45 hours; an increase in the overtime rate from time and a third to time and a half; addition of a third

week to annual vacation; and an increase in unpaid maternity leave from three to four months.

The Basic Conditions of Employment bill also introduces three ,, days of paid "family responsibility" leave, and it says work time must be organized to avoid endangering employees' health and safety or undermining their family responsibilities.

Greater equity

"Part of it is the fact that we are moving from a system where there were a whole series of restrictions on the mobility -- particularly the upward mobility -- of black workers," said Edward C. Webster, sociology professor at the University of Witwatersrand and a specialist in industrial relations.

"So part of the Department of Labor's strategic mission is to create greater equity in the workplace. It is trying to find a balance between equity and efficiency."

However, the government's proposal has run headlong into opposition from employers and trade unions.

"There is deadlock at the moment," Webster said. "The legislation really gets to the bottom-line issues.

"It gets to capital's concern about cost containment, and labor's concern about employment standards. It's going to make it much more difficult to reach a compromise."

The employers estimate the reforms could add as much as 20 percent to production costs, hampering job creation -- a major emphasis of economic policy, with unemployment among blacks estimated about 40 percent.

The employers also warn that the proposed changes threaten to undermine South Africa's competitiveness at a time when industry here is looking for both foreign investment and overseas markets. South Africa, they note, is already at the bottom of a recently published table of international competitiveness.

"Unless we become competitive in the global arena, we will be the long-term losers," said Philip Krawitz, president of the South African Chamber of Business.

"The bill is not appropriate with unemployment levels approaching 40 percent," he said. "What we are trying to do is change the nature of the old relationship between employer and employee from one of total distortion, where workers were really getting the thin end of the wedge, exploited by the system, exploited by white capitalists to a system where we say 'We are in this together.' I think business is ready for that."

Not far enough, labor says

Labor unions say the reforms do not go far enough and there are plans for a half-day of protest on May 12.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions wants a 40-hour week phased in over five years, and six months' maternity leave, four of them paid.

Both sides will push for changes in the package before it goes to Parliament later this year. Once it gets to Parliament, the unions, with their long-standing and close alliance with the ruling ANC, are considered to have more political pull, but the government is also anxious to foster industrial expansion and job growth.

Pub Date: 5/03/97

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