Prisoners of a Paradigm

Mr Jan Theron, took some time during his brief visit to Grahamstown to present a seminar at Rhodes University recently. His talk hinged on his paper entitled Prisoners of a Paradigm: Labour broking, the new services and non-standard employment.

He explained that he wrote the paper as a way of revisiting an issue he has been grappling with for some time. Labour market regulation in South Africa is an ongoing argument, and his paper is an attempt to engage with the issue. Mr Theron’s stance is that state cannot simply ban labour broking, and the calls for regulation often do not stand up to reasoned argument. There is therefore a profound paradigm shift which has to happen where the definition of the employer, employee and workplace all need to be redrawn.

Mr Theron took as his case study R, a driver who understands himself to be permanently employed. However, he is employed by a labour broker, who is employed by a company which in turn is sourcing drivers on behalf of a local mill. This, says Mr Theron, shows a dissonance between what government terms a workplace and what people in their day to day life are experiencing as a workplace. The type of workplace in which R is working is in fact twice removed from the permanent employer, or client. A worker employed in this way has no access to sectoral bargaining and his or her services can be terminated at any time by the client.

He added that it is extremely hard to distinguish between labour broking and the ‘new’ services, such as the security, cleaning and transport industries, which have become particularly prevalent over the last couple of decades and which represent sectors many companies wish to outsource.

It is hard to advocate an outright ban on labour broking when these service industries may be affected due to the vague nature of the current law. He also queried whether it was desirable to ban an economic activity; a ban on labour broking would probably leave workers worse off. Banning would be an example of repressive law, and resorting to such a law regarding economic activity would be unprecedented, he argued, in South Africa.

The current paradigm offers no protection to people in an employment relationship other than the traditional employee/employer model. Attempts to introduce culpability have been clumsy and unsuccessful. He suggests looking at the workplace as it really is, and trialling a system whereby the workers dependent on a particular client constitute a forum and get unions to represent all workers within it, whether they are directly or indirectly employed. This could conceivably lead to collective bargaining, although he is uncertain as to what response employers might make to this.

The forum could unpack what is actually going on and argue for the rights of indirectly employed people, such as R. Trade unions, he says, need to go back to their roots and back to the point of plant-level bargaining, one mill, one factory at a time. This, he believes is the only way to develop an alternate paradigm which is fairer to all workers.

Photos and story by Jeannie McKeown


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