Concluding challenges for 2010.

As we come to the end of this year, 2009, I think It would be appropriate to reflect on some of the major challenges we faced during 2009 relevant to the world of work. We have seen turmoil in almost every aspect of our society where our leadership and values were seriously brought into question, from government, our legal system, xenophobia, economic crisis, social upheaval, service delivery chaos, the management of our sporting codes and so on. For now let us focus on a few issues we must confront as business leaders moving into 2010.

On the economic front the recession had devastating effects on businesses and workplaces. Relations in the workplace have never been more challenging as we have seen thousands of job losses this year. In a statement to the National Assembly on the Framework for South Africa’s response to the international economic crisis, the Minister of Economic development stated the following:

“The international economic crisis and the local recession threaten to wipe out our economic gains. If the trend continue, we could soon find ourselves back to where we were five years ago. Our gains are being seriously eroded, but we will recover if we take the right steps. We need to use the crisis as an opportunity to mobilize the nation around a programme to defend the economy and to further strengthen it and to defend jobs”

As a result, government, business, labour and community organizations adopted a framework in response to the economic crisis. I will not deliberate further on this, but it would be interesting to see how this framework or strategy will assist in rebuilding the economy. This remains a challenge for business moving forward.

On the labour relations front, notably this year has been the drive from government to review employment standards in South Africa with specific reference to labour brokers. In a discussion document prepared for the Department of Labour in this regard the following is stated:

“In the period since the Labour Relations Act (LRA) came into effect, there have been excessive changes in the South African labour market. Work has become increasingly diverse with an increasing proportion of work being performed by workers in non-standard employment. The process of informalisation has resulted in increasing number of workers not being protected, or being inadequately protected, by labour law. Many firms have restructured to reduce standard employment or have adopted strategies to avoid or minimize labour law. These strategies include outsourcing, the use of fixed-term contracts, temporary and part-time work and labour broking.”

Further stated in this discussion document is the need for an expanded scope of protection as reflected in the International Labour Organization (ILO) conception of decent work which has the goal of promoting “opportunities for woman and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”. It goes further by suggesting that our labour laws need to be re-evaluated to ascertain the extent to which they provide employees with decent work.

This discussion document comes as a response to the challenge of providing decent work for non-standard employees by proposing legislative responses to exploitative labour practices that have become common in the South African labour market, the focus being on labour brokers.

According to a recent media reports, the government is pushing ahead with a ban on labour brokering and the practice may become illegal as early as next year April. Supporting this, earlier this month the Labour Minister slammed the pace of introducing these legislative changes and said that the department will find ways to fast-track this lengthy process. It seems thus that changes to the LRA and other related laws is inevitable and we need to stay abreast of these developments as it will certainly have an impact on how businesses operate in the future.

On Tuesday 01 December we again commemorated International World Aids Day. HIV/AIDS remain one of the biggest risks facing our economy and must become a key focus area for any business.

According to the latest statistics published by UNAIDS/WHO in July 2008 an estimated 33 million people including 2.5 million children were living with HIV/Aids worldwide by the end of 2007. During the same year about 2.5 million people became newly infected with the virus with around half of them becoming infected before they turn 25 and dying of AIDS –related illnesses before their 35th birthday.

South Africa has been particularly hard hit with an estimated 5.2 million people living with HIV&Aids in 2008, more than any other country. It is believed that in 2008, over 250 000 South Africans died of Aids. With national prevalence currently around 11%, one on ten South Africans is infected.

On a positive note we have seen a change in government’s stance on this crisis. To this effect the US gave South Africa R887 million for AIDS treatment drugs to fight this epidemic. Workplaces in addition have a major role to play to turn this tide around. Developing a wellness strategy or initiative as a comprehensive approach to effectively also deal with HIV/Aids is of strategic importance.

I must however emphasize that no matter what measures we put in place or what amount of money we invest in business, this will not guarantee success. Success comes with good leadership and people management practices.

David Kneale managing Director of Clicks and his team of executives has for the second year in a row taken the top spot in the South Africa Corporate Research Foundation (CRF) leading managers’ rankings. For Kneale management and leadership are about people. “good leadership is about developing clear strategies and goals, investing in people development and influencing people towards achieving those goals” so unless we develop such behaviors we are doomed to fail.

Lastly a word of caution as we prepare for the annual end-of-year rituals, the “Staff Party!” Although good intentions always go with the planning of staff parties, it always has the potential of delivering embarrassing disasters for individuals and companies as well.

Starting in sequence, the abuse of alcohol goes hand in hand with such parties. In our law the abuse of alcohol is misconduct, where a dependency or addiction has been established it must be dealt with as incapacity ill-health matter. Abuse of alcohol then leads to assaults, threats and intimidation and even racist insults. Making racist comments or insults will usually justify dismissal. However, in two cases the Labour Court found the dismissal to be unfair, because the comment had been made in the heat of the moment after some provocation.

Another risk with staff parties is sexual harassment. Our courts generally take a strong approach against sexual harassment. Dismissal is regarded as a fair sanction for sexual harassment. Adding to this, associated with alcohol or substance abuse is unsafe sex which leads to the risk of HIV/Aids infections. All of this has got to do with the behavior of people.

Leaving parties then lead to drinking and driving and may risk the lives of valuable employees. Your blood may not have an alcohol content of more than 0.05%. This translates into 350ml of beer or a single tot of brandy or other spirit. Remember that these levels of alcohol will remain in your system for up to eight hours after consumption. The South African Police Services recommends that employers or employees organize a taxi or shuttle service to take staff members home after the party.

On a happier note, may I wish you and your family well over the festive season.I hope we will all have a good rest and come back next year with a spirit renewed to inspire those around us, in the words of President Barack Obama:

“Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work hard and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”

Information provided by KEVIN HOLLENBACH, Labour Relations Specialist