SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting now with [mining and labour analyst] Mamokgethi Molopyane. Today is World Day for Decent Work. In light of the Numsa strike and Cosato calling for a National stayaway today, Mamokgethi, the question I suppose for those lucky enough to have a job in South Africa is: is it ‘decent work’ or is it stratification – that the answer almost depends on where you’re working?
MAMOKGETHI MOLOPYANE: No. There’ve been quite a number of studies that have shown that for most people in South Africa who are employed in certain sectors, yes, they have what can be defined as, or falls under ,the category of ‘decent work’. However, there are still certain industries and certain occupations [among] mostly low-skilled workers that are regarded as barely meeting what characterises decent work as defined or identified by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
SIMON BROWN: What would be defined as decent work? I imagine it’s things like safety, it’s things like leave, maternity leave, salaries. Is it as simple as that for decent work?
MAMOKGETHI MOLOPYANE: No. It also includes four objectives, really: the promotion of standards and rights at work to ensure that the workers are constitutionally protected, that they have dignity, equality and fair labour practices, among other things. And then there’s the promotion of employment creation or income opportunity, and usually the ILO says this is not just about the creation of jobs, but the creation of jobs of an acceptable quality, or that a person is able from the job to meet their basic needs and sustain themselves.
Another point that is quite critical in the context – not just of South Africa, but of the global south – is the provision or an improvement of social protection and social securities which, if you look at South Africa in particular, is crucial because they are targeted at alleviating poverty, inequality and reducing the burden of care responsibility.
SIMON BROWN: Is it fair to say that notwithstanding your method, particularly in the lower-income jobs, a lot of those are not what would be classified as decent work; and as you run through that list, I can get to understand why. But have things improved? I think back 20 years ago or so to mining in South Africa with frequent mining deaths, which are largely a thing of the past – are we at least moving in the right direction?
MAMOKGETHI MOLOPYANE: Yes we are. It’s interesting that you bring [up] a sector that I work very closely in. But yes, when you look at how the working conditions of many South Africans have improved post ’94, or within the democratic South Africa, then you realise that we may not yet be there – and to your listeners this is important – we may not yet be there as things are not one hundred percent perfect. But, the majority of our South African workers are truly safeguarded by those characteristics that I have just mentioned of what it means to be a person with decent work, or what decent work means. That is important.
However, when you look at several statistical indicators that measure progress – such as employment opportunity, adequate earnings, stability and security of work – of course that is different, because conditions in the global economy change and as such, conditions in the local economy change, and the precarious nature of work that has been taking place [in the past 20 years] has made work security and adequate income and productive work change completely.
So obviously when you look at those statistics, you may say, okay, there are some changes here and there that are affecting the ability of people or the ability of industries or a country to have decent work”.
SIMON BROWN: Again, with that list of what’s required, and so on, it would seem that in South Africa as a country, as a regulatory environment, we certainly have the regulatory framework, even if we don’t always have it actually working on the ground.
MAMOKGETHI MOLOPYANE: Absolutely, Simon. We are among the countries that have quite detailed and very specific labour legislation. That is important. I know often in discussions it’s argued that it can be a hindrance to creating employment opportunities, which is part of decent work as per the ILO.
But, compared to most, for example, countries in the SADC region which are doing far better, and compared to even other countries in the global north and in Asia, we are doing far better in terms of legislation and regulation and policy mechanisms around employment and work.
For example, [there are] many countries throughout the world where many workers do not have the right to organise, the right to convene, the right to gather and protest freely, the right to strike. Many workers still don’t have that. It’s something that we might take for granted in South Africa, but it is such a crucial, fundamental thing to labour movement and organised movement in terms [not only] of showing their unhappiness, but also in terms of social protest.
SIMON BROWN: Yes. A lot of my listeners don’t like strikes, but it’s an important component of the labour industry and it is legally protected. That absolutely does matter.
Mamokgethi Molopyane, I really appreciate your time this morning.