While employees are the most valuable assets business owners have at their disposal, severe Governmental legislation and red tape can often do more harm than good – for employers and employees alike.
According to Advocate Saleem
Seedat, convenor of the Certificate in Practical Labour Relations at Wits Plus, many entrepreneurs and business owners view labour relations as a diabolical instrument that should be shoved into the footnotes of a business plan. “Employers harbour a pathological fear of any issues that even suggest some kind of disciplinary measure,” he explains. “In South Africa, labour relations should be part of the arsenal of any entrepreneur. It is not something to fear, and should be an area entrepreneurs make a point of understanding. Your labour force can be one of your greatest assets. Understand their rights – and educate them on yours. Together you can create a sustainable business.”
Seedat points out that just as employers shy away from labour relations, employees have an attitude of entitlement. “Employees forget that fairness applies equally to employers. For a business owner to create a successful labour relations policy it is vital that the lines of communication are opened between employer and employee and that everyone understands the others’ rights and expectations.”
Proposed labour laws
Unfortunately, many of Government’s proposed plans are more likely to make business owners skittish than open channels of communication with their staff. For example, local business has recently criticised Government for its proposed labour law adjustments. Is this fear talking or are there real reasons for business to be worried?
It appears the fear is in fact justified. Business owners face the prospect of being weighed down by more red tape than ever before when they hire staff, if the proposals to overhaul the labour laws are enacted. These proposals include the effective banning of labour brokers, the outlawing of temporary work and the fining of employers who don’t report firm vacancies to the Department of Labour (DoL). The period for submitting public comments came to an end in February.
A regulatory impact assessment (Ria) by local policy analysts concluded that if the proposals were made law in their present form, employers would steer away from taking on new employees or retaining existing temporary staff, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
If the proposals are made law, employers that rely on contract workers to fulfil projects will have to argue their case to the DoL for hiring temporary employees, as, by default, all employees will have to be made permanent. In addition, business owners running more sizeable operations will risk fines if they fail to carry out employment equity quotas.
The proposals also include the setting up of a state employment services portal (under the Employment Services Bill) which will act as a massive job placement database.
The bill proposes to make it compulsory for employers to report any vacancies in their firms to the department within 14 days. Employers that fail to do so can be fined up to R10 000.
The department believes that employers will use the portal to fill vacancies in their firms and justifies this by singling out a similar portal in Sweden where employers are fined when they fail to report vacancies.
The bill aims to “improve labour market inefficiencies” with the aim of combating unemployment. The problem is that it comes off as ‘big brother’ recruiting employees on behalf of employers. Will businesses be forced to hire employees they do not necessarily need simply because the post was filled before? One of the few benefits of the recession has been business tightening its belt, becoming leaner and more efficient and doing away with redundant and inefficient employees and positions.
Another worrying point about this particular proposal is that it hasn’t actually worked in Sweden. The DoL’s head of employment services, Zodwa Mabaso, has publically conceded that a Swedish official has advised her department against levying fines, pointing out that in Sweden fines had only succeeded in clogging up the Nordic country’s courts as resolute employers sought to challenge the fines.
Out of touch
The proposals reveal how out of touch Government appears to be when it comes to creating and enabling business environments. During the economic development portfolio committee’s public hearings on SME Finance late last year, some MPs asked business owners whether they had considered turning their businesses into cooperatives. These are entrepreneurs who have taken it upon themselves to start a business and put their families and homes at risk to finance their start-ups. Now they are being asked whether workers shouldn’t be given an equal share in their business.
Government does have a point: Employees who have a stake in the business’s success are more likely to perform and will benefit economically. Everyone wins. But the suggestion does raise the spectre of government seizing ownership of private assets a la Zimbabwe. Are these fears justified? And even if they aren’t, is it fair to ask entrepreneurs to simply give away shares in their hard-earned companies? Is this in any way supportive of an entrepreneurial spirit in South Africa? The issue of finance is no better. In the last five years Khula has been running a 42% default rate on its guarantee scheme, while a similar scheme in India had a default rate of just 2,5% over the same period. An ANC MP excuses the record with the oft-repeated mantra: “But we live in a developmental state.” It seems to suggest that business owners shouldn’t worry about paying back state loans because it’s Government’s job to bail you out. A DA MP’s point is just as worrying. He seems more concerned that increasing Khula lending through the banks might place the local banking system at risk, than that Khula has never lent out more than 800 guarantees a year in its over 14-year existence.
As Barrie Terblanche, author of Starting Your Own Business in South Africa, puts it, Government seems to think that all businesses, even small, are solid entities. You can tax them, make them sell a cut in a BEE transaction or turn them into cooperatives and they won’t close shop. The reality is of course quite different – and often the cause of business owners resenting Government, its laws and fearing the murky waters of labour relations.
Business owners need to take action. First, take a close look at your business and see where you can improve labour relations. The proposed laws might come into effect or they might change, but use this as an opportunity to scrutinise the way you do business. Labour relations are nothing to fear, as long as you know your rights as an employer, and what you should be offering your employees. Alternatively, if, as a business owner, you want to take action, the best thing you can do is write to the DoL outlining how many jobs you would have to cut should the labour law amendments be enacted, or for that matter, if any other anti-business proposal threatens to make it more expensive or difficult to run your own business. Entrepreneurs are the life blood of the gross domestic product and their businesses should be encouraged to thrive. This should not be achieved at the detriment of the local labour force, but threatening the livelihood of business is no solution either.
Amidst the doom and gloom there are some things business owners can do to improve their labour relations. Saleem Seedat outlines a few steps you can implement today:
- Understand that Government’s proposed bills are just that – proposals. There is a swell of opposition and they are unlikely to be implemented in their present form. Do not have a knee-jerk reaction to something that hasn’t happened yet.
- Try instead to view your relationship with your employees as a partnership. If you are antagonistic towards them they will be antagonistic back. Remember that without your labour force you have no business and try to be accommodating instead. Once your employees buy in to the fact that a sustainable business means job security and growth for them, you can build a trusting relationship.
- Be open and honest with your employees. Explain how your business works and your objectives. Allow them to believe you also have their best interests at heart.
- Unfortunately unions can be militant. They need to be seen as vocal and aggressive by their members. This stems back to the 80s when they were at the forefront of the struggle, and certain tendencies have not yet changed. This militant behaviour means that they push for extremes but do not always educate their members. Many employees do not know their rights. They also do not understand the rights of their employers, and carry a sense of entitlement that is not always accurate.
- If your employees feel they can trust you, talk to you and that you have their best interests at heart, you will immediately have a better relationship with them. Build this relationship now and the new proposals need not have an adverse effect on your business.
- One way to improve productivity is also to offer performance bonuses. These can be based on quality, outputs, whatever suits your business model. Even if you pay minimum wage this is a way to give your employees a reason to work hard and feel connected to the business’s success. Help them understand that better productivity equals a better business and more money for everyone.
In a nutshell
What the future might hold
The DoL’s labour law proposals, which were released late last year and closed for public comment in February, include:
- Regulating contract work by putting a stop to the practice of repeated contracting for short-term periods. The onus will be on employers to justify the use of short-term or fixed-term contracts (Labour Relations Amendment Bill).
- Temporary employees or those on fixed-term contracts will be expected to qualify for the same benefits as permanent employees (Labour Relations Amendment Bill).
- Labour brokers will only be able to perform recruitment services on behalf of clients and will be prohibited from paying benefits and wages on behalf of the client.
- Designated employers (defined by annual turnover with for example Community, Social and Personal Services being R5 million) that don’t prepare and implement an employment equity plan can be taken to the Labour Court and fined between 2% and 10% of their turnover.
- Designated employers with less than 150 employees must submit an employment equity plan to the department once a year, instead of the present once every two years.
- Employers must register all vacancies in the workplace to the department within 14 days or face fines of up to R10 000 (Employment Services Bill).
– Stephen Timm