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  • 'There shall be work and security':utopian thinking or a necessary condition for development and social cohesion?
  • Edward Webster (bio)


'Men at the Side of the Road' is a registered not-for-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Cape Town that assists day labourers find casual employment. It was set up, initially, to establish the legal right of day labourers to stand and wait for work on the pavement. The organisation had to go to the High Court to stop the police from arresting them for waiting at the side of the road. Men at the Side of the Road is not a labour brokering firm which employs workers and then hires them out to an employer. It is, instead, a labour market intermediary, which assists unemployed persons to find casual employment. They choose a space at the side of the road, set up banners, register the unemployed, gather details of their backgrounds, develop a data base, build up CVs for workers, and facilitate their training.

This initiative forms part of the historic struggle by black people for the right to work. Fifty-five years ago, on June 25 and 26, 1955, 2,844 delegates gathered in Kliptown, Soweto, to debate and ratify the Freedom Charter. It became the iconic document defining the nature of our struggle for freedom and democracy. At the core of this document was an explicit link between the right to work and the right to security. Through the extension of democratic rights, recognition of trade unions, skills development, employment equity programmes, economic incorporation through wages and various benefits, key demands of the Freedom Charter have been won in post-apartheid South Africa. However, in spite of the progress we have made in this struggle for decent work, a key feature of the apartheid workplace remains in place - that of insecurity in the workplace and in [End Page 225] society. Indeed, the goal of the right to work and security seems as elusive as ever, given that 22.5 per cent of the economically active population are unemployed,. If we include those who do not have work but who have stopped looking for work - the so-called discouraged worker - the figure is at least 34.4 per cent (Statistics South Africa 2009).

This is the puzzle I examine in this article. A widespread explanation for South Africa's exceptionally high unemployment rate is that the very labour rights that workers have won have created a rigid labour market that deters hiring. It is argued that the minimum wages established in various sectors, the extension of collective bargaining agreements to non-parties, and significant obstacles to retrenchments and dismissals have made employers reluctant to hire. 'The price of over-regulation [of the labour market]' a recent report from a respected liberal policy think tank argues, 'is paid by the poor and unskilled, by people who have only their labour to sell but are being barred from doing so by the rigidities of our labour market' (South African Institute of Race Relations [SAIRR] 2009:31).

Employers have responded to these 'rigidities' by either not complying with the labour regulations or by-passing them by outsourcing and subcontracting the work to a third party, a labour broker. This means that workers technically no longer work at the premises of their employers, because they are employed by a third party, the labour broker, who enters into a commercial contract with the 'client'.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) resolved at its 2009 congress to campaign for a ban on labour brokers, arguing that labour broking represents a modern form of slavery (COSATU 2009). The Confederation of Associations in the Private Employment Sector (CAPES) is strongly opposed to the ban. It argues that since 2000, private employment agencies introduced around 3.5 million temporary, part-time and contract employees, approximately 2 million of whom were first-time job seekers, into the labour market (Sharp 2009:5). If this is true - and this research needs to be tested through peer review - labour brokers are indeed an important point of entry into the labour market. However, this does not refute the fact that there is shocking exploitation of sub-contracted...


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