Getting to grips with 'decent work'
GWEDE Mantashe created something
of a furore when he told an
ANC lekgotla a year ago that the jobs
the party wanted to see need not be
“decent” as there was “nothing
more (degrading) than being unemployed”
(Business Day, 18 January
2011). He was not altogether wrong.
It is true that there is nothing
more degrading than being unemployed,
in the sense of being without
work. Work is integral to our sense
of worth and dignity. It is the primary
way in which social inclusion
is achieved. For these reasons, work
has been recognised as a right, since
the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights was adopted.
Where Mantashe seems to have
gone wrong is in what he presupposes
decent work to mean – as
though decent work is defined by an
objectively verifiable standard,
applicable to a certain form of work.
He can perhaps not be blamed for
that. Decent work has become a slogan
without much attempt to engage
with its origins or meaning.
The concept originates with the
International Labour Organisation
(ILO), and has morphed through various
formulations since it was first
mooted in 1999. In all the frameworks
adopted, “work” has been understood
to encompass all forms of work. This
is what is significant about the concept.
It is not a standard that is only
applicable to employees.
What is decent or not remains a
matter of debate.
To place this debate in its historical
context, the adoption of decent
work represents the ILO’s response
to a global situation in which its
labour standards are increasingly
seen as irrelevant, particularly in
the less developed nations of the
There are two reasons for this.
First, labour standards are
premised on there being an ongoing
relationship between workers and
an employer, in which the employer
controls the workplace where they
work, and is accountable for the conditions
under which they work. This
is the standard job.
But the standard job has never
been the norm in much of the global
South. Further, even in developed
countries, it has increasingly
become a fiction to say the employer
controls the workplace, or is solely
accountable for the conditions of
One way to understand why this
is so is in terms of a value chain, in
which the economically dominant
party is regarded as a lead firm, in a
vertical relationship with other
businesses that are subordinate to it.
Walmart, a company whose
assets and sales exceed the gross
national product of all but a handful
of developed countries, epitomises
such a firm. Conceptually, the contractual
relationship between Walmart
and its suppliers is one of
between equals. In reality, it obviously
calls the shots.
I prefer to focus on the point
where workers actually work,
because this is where workers associate
with one another, and have a
collective presence. The workplace
in the formal economy used to be a
place where only employees of the
employer work. Nowadays, it is a
place where different employers,
each with their own workforce, congregate
around what I call a core
business. It is the core business that,
in turn, determines the conditions
under which the workers employed
by their satellites work.
Despite their oft-stated opposition
to a two-tier labour market,
trade unions have not been successful
in resisting this development,
even in unionised workplaces.
Labour legislation, which supposedly
cares about the inequality
inherent in the employment
relationship, has by and large been
neutral in its response to this development.
The result has been the
emergence of tiers in the formal
workplace, not to speak of the
labour market at large.
Labour broking is by no means
the only instance of this. To illustrate,
it is convenient to take a case
study with which everyone is familiar
– the provision of municipal
services. Municipal services are provided
by municipal workers whose
conditions of work are regulated by
a bargaining council agreement that
is negotiated nationally. What is not
as well known is that there are many
workers providing municipal services
who are not employed by municipalities
at all, or who are not
directly employed by them.
Waste collection, for example, is
indubitably a municipal service. Yet
many municipalities have engaged
private contractors to provide this
service, in informal settlements and
elsewhere. Some municipalities
have even set up separate entities to
do so. It also appears that these services
are being provided under the
guise of public works.
Whatever justifications may be
offered for such arrangements, in
the final analysis the benefit for the
municipality is to be able to employ
workers at a fraction of the cost of a
municipal worker proper, without
being legally accountable for them.
The municipality is also not
accountable for any job losses that
would flow from its terminating a
contract with a contractor, any more
than Walmart would be for doing the
same with a supplier.
Some economists have recently
been making noise about the cost of
labour in SA. I suspect this has less
to do with what labour actually costs
at present, than in anticipation of
what it will cost if the Labour Relations
Amendment Bill of 2012 is
The bill for the first time departs
from an approach in terms of which
all employees are treated alike. Specific
provisions are needed for specific
categories of employees, such as
part-time workers and agency workers.
A principle of equal pay for equal
work will apply in respect of each.
It nevertheless remains legislation
rooted in the paradigm of
employment in a standard job. It
cannot hope to alter the structure of
the economy. A municipality utilising
a contractor to render municipal
services will continue to be able to
do so, even though the structure of
the relationship is practically identical
to labour broking.
It goes without saying that workers
in what might be described as a
third and fourth tier will also not
benefit in any way from the bill.
An example of the third tier, in
the municipal context, would be the
provision of child-care and crèches.
The persons who run these enterprises
are self-employed, and may
need to employ others to assist them.
Some would characterise them as
entrepreneurs. I would regard them
as own-account workers, providing a
service in working-class communities
that should be seen as socially
indispensable. Until quite recently
the City of Cape Town, for one, saw
this as a municipal service.
Although there is no contractual
nexus between a municipality and
workers, how the municipality as
well as the department of social welfare
regulates these facilities has a
direct bearing on their sustainability.
It also has a bearing on the conditions
under which workers are
employed, and the wellbeing of the
children in their care.
A similar argument can be made
in respect of waste pickers operating
on municipal landfills. Such
workers might be regarded as constituting
a fourth tier.
These examples concern workers
engaged in work that cannot necessarily
be conveniently categorised
as either standard or non-standard,
or formal or informal, because these
terms are themselves the product of
a paradigm that no longer applies.
There can, therefore, be no question
of simply extending labour legislation
to include such workers.
Other forms of regulation may
be more relevant than labour legislation
in creating conditions that are
decent. The debate that the concept
of decent work invites us to have,
concerns how resources are allocated
to promote all forms of work,
and not just employment in a standard
job. It also implies that there is
a need for a new paradigm.
As currently formulated, decent
work comprises four objectives.
The first of these objectives is
“creating jobs”. These jobs need to be
sustainable, and the concept of a job
encompasses “sustainable livelihoods”.
Although it is convenient to
describe this as an economic objective,
it can also be regarded as the fulfilment
of a right to work, without
which decent work is unattainable.
The second objective, “guaranteeing
rights at work”, can be described
as legal in nature.
The third objective, social protection,
relates to the provision of welfare.
Some would argue these objectives
are in conflict with one another.
The ILO also does not say how these
different objectives should be prioritised,
when all the objectives are not
This is indeed a weakness. It also
renders futile any attempt to develop
indicators of decent work. Decent
work is clearly not a quantitative
concept. It would, therefore, be a
mistake to try to measure it.
However, both in the rights which
are the focus of the legal objective,
and in terms of its fourth objective
of social dialogue, there is an
emphasis on the value of workers
having organisations that represent
them and that voice their interests.
The most debilitating situation
for any worker is to be powerless to
address his or her work situation.
Work cannot be regarded as
decent merely because workers say
it is. At the same time, what workers
say about their work is important,
particularly when what is decent is
not an objectively verifiable standard.
At a minimum, therefore,
there needs to be effective organisations
for workers whose worth is
currently not recognised, and
forums where they can raise their
collective voice. That way, it will be
possible to take the debate forward.
. This is the third in a six-part
series. Former trade unionist Theron
is a practising labour lawyer, and is
currently co-ordinator of the labour
and enterprise policy (LEP) research
group in the Law Faculty of the University
of Cape Town.