Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant File image: Leon Nicholas

Durban - The minister of labour acted “irrationally and unreasonably” when she extended a clothing industry collective agreement to non-parties, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of clothing and textile workers.

This has been said by five Newcastle clothing manufacturers in a submission to the KwaZulu-Natal High Court.

They are seeking a review and order setting aside the minister’s decision to extend the wage agreement to clothing manufacturers that are not members of the bargaining council, on the basis that such a decision was unlawful and unconstitutional.

Valueline, Afrika HK Manufacturing, Sectotrade, JCR Clothing and Gold Shu-Lin Clothing, joined by the United Clothing and Textile Association, have brought the application against the minister of labour, the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry, and the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

In an affidavit before Judge Pete Koen yesterday, Han-Wei Chen, the manager of Valueline, which makes jerseys in Newcastle, said the minister had failed to take note of the negative effects her decision would have, including job losses and factory closures.

The factories argued the decision unjustifiably infringed on their rights to freedom of trade, association and equality.

The extension of the agreement to non-parties compelled the Newcastle factories to pay their staff a minimum wage.

If the factories comply with the minimum wage provisions, four of the five will shut down and the fifth will have to fire a third of its staff, according to papers before the court.

The papers cite an impact analysis by Econex Economic Consulting that found the minister’s decision could result in the retrenchment of between 6 500 and 22 000 workers.

“The decision by the minister has an adverse impact on the rights of workers employed by the applicants in that the factories will be forced to close down and workers will lose their jobs and their ability to support themselves,” Chen said.

Chen said the minister should have consulted the non-parties before extending the agreement. Had she given them a chance to make representations, she would have been advised that the decision would cause hardship and result in factory closures and job losses.

“The minister should have considered the state of the industry and whether it could sustain a requirement that non-parties be compelled to pay the minimum wage.”

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant is opposing the application, and maintains that her decision to extend the agreement to non-parties was lawful and constitutional.

The minister insists that she was within her jurisdiction to extend the agreement and that there were justifications for the regulation of wages, principally to prevent the exploitation of workers.

Judgment was reserved.

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