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Keynote address by the Minister of Labour: FEDUSA 6th National Congress

Keynote address by the Minister of Labour, Mrs Mildred Oliphant, on the occasion of the FEDUSA 6th National Congress, aptly themed; “decent work and decent life for all.”


17 November 2016

Programme Director

The President of FEDUSA; Mr Koos Bezuidenhout

General Secretary, Mr Dennis George

Leadership of the esteem Congress Delegates

President of COSATU, Comrade Sdumo Dlamini

President of NACTU; Comrade Joseph Maqhekeni

Leadership of the COSATU and NACTU affiliates, here Present

Executive Secretary of SATUCC

General Secretary of ITUC Africa

President of Business Unity South Africa: Mr Mabuza

Distinguished Guests,

Members of the Media

Ladies and Gentlemen

Special guests,


Good Day; Goeie Dag; Molweni, Dumelang, Sanibonani…

I am indeed humbled by your invitation to come and share some my thoughts with you on this special occasion. I hope you will agree with me that, this congress takes place at the time when the global economy is going through a difficult patch. The International Monetary Fund estimates global growth in the territory is by far lower than that of the same period in 2015.

It is notable that the advanced global economies are also growing at slower pace than previously anticipated. Falling investment trends have had a negative impact on trade and have affected workers throughout the world. Global industrial production and global trade remain stagnant resulting in some countries resorting into protectionism. 

Whilst these stances may benefit workers in their industries, it would no doubt impact workers negatively in other countries.  If you add impact of Brexit phenomenon occasioned by the UK referendum to leave the European Union and the instability in the Middle East which others argue that these prevent the global recovery from taking momentum. 

The theme of this congress; Decent Work and Decent Life for All” cannot be divorced from the current global economic trends.  Therefore in dealing with the sluggish and uncertain economic recovery must remain one of the key priorities in our national discourse. Decent life for all is very much depended on how our own economy is doing.

Whilst the said rebalancing of growth in China is providing long-term opportunities for industries, it is also threatens jobs as a result of its impact on trade and on commodity prices.  We have also observed that at the centre of the increase in the migration of people from economically depressed regions to countries that present better opportunities, has a lot to do with the changing global economic dynamics.

We witness far more frequently these days, the depressing incidents of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape poverty and conflicts in North Africa. There is no doubt that the majority of them are workers and their families who are fleeing their homes in search of a better life.

In some developed economies, the migration crisis has led to xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment. The BREXIT vote in the UK, the political climates in many European countries and the threats of building walls to keep migrants out of the United States, are but some examples of this.

What is to be done, individually and as a collective, is the critical question that deserves attention from all of us.  I am aware that others cannot resist the temptation of using the time of difficulties to apportion blame. In wealthier countries, the migration crisis has in turn led to increased xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. The BREXIT vote in the UK, the political climates in many European countries and the rhetoric about building walls in the United States, are all examples of this. 

While we have limited control over what other countries do and how those things affect the global economy, we have some degree of control over our own economic environment. Managing our environment is the responsibility not only of government, but ours as the society and social partners.

The National Development Plan calls for a five percent growth as the pre-requisite to make a visible dent of our triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Whilst this sound like a toll order given the global economic situation, I believe that if we work together, like we did in addressing the impact of the 2008/9 global economic crisis, we can come up with credible interventions.  I am sure that you are aware that the global economy is receiving attention from global fora such as the G20 and BRICS.

It is incumbent on all of us to be seized with policies that will promote our efforts to create jobs, address unemployment, improve people’s employability and promote decent work. This congress presents an excellent platform to craft sustainable interventions in pursuit of decent work and better life for all. 

I have noticed that the African and international perspectives are well catered for in this congress if one looks at the line-up of speakers. We can all learn from one another on how we deal with issues that affect our lives, and strengthening our efforts to close the gap between the rich and the poor. 

The current global economic challenges require unity of purpose from all of us. Workers must unite to respond effectively to the challenge of unemployment, inequality and poverty in the world especially, in Africa.  As you embark on your deliberations please remember Leon Grobler’, the Chief Operating Officer of UASA, who passed away in December 2015 and who played an important role in the life of FEDUSA.  Leon Grobler was committed to the ideal of Decent Work and it is appropriate that your theme for this year’s Congress is decent work and a decent life for all.

In the words of the ILO Director General; “the primary goal of the ILO Decent Work Agenda is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.”

We can be proud as South Africans that of progress we are making in advancing all four pillars of decent work, namely;  The promotion of fundamental principles and rights at work; The promotion of employment and income opportunities.

The expansion and improvement of social protection coverage, and the promotion of social dialogue and tripartism.  These pillars indeed provide the lens through which we can measure our progress in creating decent work. 

The implementation of the 9 Point Plan has continued to yield positive results and there has been steady progress in re-vitalising agriculture and the agro-processing sectors, growing the oceans economy and growth in the private sector investments. 

Despite the overall decline in employment, the 9 Point Plan reflects a significant number of jobs retained and sustained and new jobs created as a result of government programmes.  The Expanded Public Works Programme has reported over 740,000 job opportunities being created.  Job creation and opportunities for SMME’s, co-operatives, township and rural economies is at the centre of all the initiatives taking place under the 9 Point Plan. 

The focus on creating jobs and new opportunities will continue and will be important for formalising employment for those in the informal sectors of the economy. 

In this regard, the EPWP is actively seeking to graduate beneficiaries of the EPWP into formal employment.

Collective bargaining is central to our labour market policy and to the Labour Relations Act. Trade unions must indeed continue recruiting more members, to ensure efficient, orderly and stable collective bargaining to address workers’ needs. This will no doubt enhance decent work and improved livelihoods of our people.

We must always bear in mind that at the centre of our labour laws is the quest to advance economic development, social justice, labour peace and the democratisation of the work place. This Congress gives you the opportunity to reflect on your gains in this regard and to consider how best to advance the developmental agenda which our labour dispensation seeks to facilitate.

The current collective bargaining situation in South Africa does, however, raise a number of concerns.  Unity in the labour movement has been weakened with a greater fragmentation among trade unions and federations.  It remains essential for strong collective bargaining for organised labour to have a strong, unified voice.

Social dialogue between government, business and labour also draws on the unity and strength of constituencies.  

The slogan, “workers united will never be defeated” has a special significance especially in the context of challenges facing the unity of the trade union movement in South Africa today.  We have stood for non-racialism, non-sexism and we have stood for democracy.  There can be no compromise on these principles and at the present time, it may be necessary to re-commit to these principles.

A challenge that continues to face collective bargaining is the need to expand the traditional agenda of bargaining to begin addressing a broader range of issues that impact on conditions of employment.  An important issue in the South African context is to support the transition from the informal to formal economy.  Employer and worker organisations should consider ways of ensuring representation and voice for organisations in the informal economy in the process of developing collective agreements.

Guidance can also be given by the institutions of collective bargaining to those seeking to make the transition to the formal sector and finding ways of extending access to social benefits and support to informal operators in different sectors.

Trade unions will need to be mindful of the risks that the introduction of a national minimum wage can pose to collective bargaining arrangements. While the commitment to introduce a national minimum wage is unquestionable, we must be careful that it does not supplant collective bargaining. 

The current process of engagement between the social partners in NEDLAC on the issue of the national minimum wage and labour market stability, is reaching finality.  Once that process is concluded, there is likely to be a phase of public consultation before a national minimum wage is introduced.  Whilst we need to deepen dialogue the debate around the introduction of a national minimum wage, we should also be mindful of the realities and evidence relating to the effect of minimum wages.

Today the introduction of a national minimum wage has become a common policy intervention in countries as diverse as the United States, Germany, Malaysia, Botswana and Kenya.  In fact, ninety percent of International Labour Organisation (ILO) member states have a minimum wage system in place. 

Let us not forget that South Africa already has minimum wages established through collective bargaining and through sectoral determinations under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.  What is now under consideration is a single national minimum wage, established as a minimum wage payable to those in employment and which will be enforceable in law.

There are those who argue as though minimum wages are an entirely new concept to the South African labour market and that a national minimum wage will inevitably destroy jobs.  Of course, it is well known that the demand for labour is sensitive to its price.  The Employment Conditions Commission grapples with precisely this issue every time it recommends a new minimum wage for a sector. 

The price of labour and how it will affect supply and demand must also be in the mind of every person engaged in negotiating a collective agreement.  Research has shown that where minimum wages are set at a reasonable level they have no significant employment effects, on way or the other. 

A critical factor in introducing a national minimum wage is to balance social benefits against potential employment losses, particularly in light of the current high unemployment rate. What this points to is the fundamental importance of the level at which a national minimum wage is set.  We need a robust debate on this issue in the country and we need contributions that will assist government and the social partners in arriving at an informed decision about the most appropriate level at which to introduce the national minimum wage. 

Equally, we need to be mindful of the measures that are being considered in NEDLAC to enhance labour market stability. 

Introducing a national minimum wage should be accompanied by measures to strengthen collective bargaining and to ensure that industrial action is peaceful, that it does not infringe on the rights of others and that strike action does not undermine the sustainability of business enterprises.

We will need to bear in mind that we are still trying to convince investors that South Africa is still a good place to invest. As a country, we urgently need investment which will go a long way to address issues of poverty and job creation. We acknowledge the support that FEDUSA has given to the joint efforts engage international investors and the ratings agencies. 

We will continue to call on your support and that of all our social partners in dealing with the key challenges facing or country.  We owe this to ourselves and to many South Africans who have built their hopes of defeating poverty and unemployment on us. We wish you well in your deliberations and we look forward to your contributions in the war against unemployment, poverty and inequality.


I thank you.

Last modified onThursday, 17 November 2016 22:24

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Gary Watkins

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