The only way in which stable access to social benefits by employees will be assured is if these benefits are not channelled through the employer, but across a different platform that does not assume the regularity of income associated with waged employment.
This is according to Rochelle le Roux, in her inaugural lecture as professor of commercial law at UCT last week. She is also the director of the Institute of Development and Labour Law.
Le Roux said: “If you think carefully about it, why should an employer be burdened with providing or channelling medical insurance, unemployment insurance, housing subsidies, and so on? Why do employers not simply pay their workers more so that they can provide for themselves?
“The inequality of bargaining power and the greed of employers can explain the need for basic conditions and minimum conditions, but it cannot adequately explain the provision of these securities by employers. It is probably a paternalistic hangover from the feudal system, and perhaps one can argue that it made sense for that brief moment in time when standard, indefinite employment was the norm, but that moment has now passed.”
Social benefits should be delinked from employment and the employer because “it is progressively the case that those who are in employment are not in standard or long-term employment. Temporary employment is on the rise and all indications are that, in the future, workers will migrate between short-term positions as a matter of course.
“The only way in which stable access to social benefits will be assured is if these benefits are not channelled through the employer, but via a different platform that does not assume the regularity of income associated with waged employment,” she said.
What Le Roux is proposing is similar to the system in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, where union membership remains high – about 70 percent – partly because unemployment and other social benefits are paid through unions.
She said workers would not simply be moving from temporary employment to unemployment, and back to temporary employment. They would be itinerants, wandering endlessly between temporary employment, unemployment, independent work, part-time jobs, and voluntary and care work.
“In other words, if trade unions are to remain relevant, they should become a conduit for at least some social benefits. This means the basis for membership of a trade union will have to be expanded to include those who are working, but who are not employees in the traditional sense, and to accommodate those who are in between work,” Le Roux said.
Jackie Kelly, a labour analyst at Andrew Levy Employment, said the proposal by Le Roux assumed that every employee was a member of a union. “Do the unions have the wherewithal to handle the social benefits? It may take their eye off the ball if they do this.”