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Congress  |  COSATU Speeches

Address to the COSATU Special Congress by Membathisis Mdladlana, Minister of Labour

19 August 1999

President of COSATU
National office bearers
Worker delegates
International guests

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address your Special National Congress. I still have vivid recollections of the last COSATU Congress that I attended and I am mindful of the fact that I am, after all, also your product.

This morning, I want to share with you the Department of Labour`s vision and priorities as we position ourselves to consolidate the considerable gains we have achieved in transforming the labour market in the first five years of democratic rule.

Secondly, I wish to pose to you, the representatives of organised workers from workplaces and sectors across our economy, some of the critical challenges we face together in realising this vision, in the context of the mission you have set for yourselves of "Repositioning COSATU to meet the challenges of the new millenium".

Priorities for the next five years

We have recently emerged from a general election with a renewed and strengthened mandate to transform our society and make it a better place for all to live and work in.

How do we effectively discharge this mandate that we have been given by the people of South Africa? How do we take advantage of the gains we have won and how do we reposition ourselves to defend, consolidate and advance the democratic revolution?

Our challenge is to translate the policies and strategies that we have developed over the past period into concrete deliverables to improve the lives of our people. Like you, our focus as government must be on effective implementation and an accelerated pace of delivery. This holds true for the Department of Labour as for all other government departments, and indeed for our nation as a whole, hence our slogan: "A nation at work for a better life".

Over the last six months, and arising from consultations with our social partners, including COSATU, I have developed a 15-point programme of action for the next five years. What is its essence?

We are proud of the fact that over the last five years we have successfully driven an extensive programme of labour market transformation. We have put in place labour market policies and programmes which have begun to reverse apartheid`s legacy of high rates of unemployment and under-employment, poverty and inequality, low skills levels and adversarial labour relations and a lack of protection for vulnerable workers.

We have laid the basis for the achievement of our vision of a labour market which promotes sustainable economic growth and investment, social development and job creation; efficiency and productivity; a labour market which promotes sound and stable labour relations, employment equity and skills development and which improves working conditions and social security benefits. A labour market which is characterised by labour standards and worker rights.

You are all aware of the new legislation which you have helped forge and which are today the linchpins of labour market policy: the NEDLAC Act, the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Employment Equity Act and the Skills Development and Skills Development Levies Acts.

My 15-point programme for the next five years is a commitment to consolidating the advances made and ensuring the continued realisation of our vision of labour market transformation.

It is a commitment, comrade chairperson to make. sure that:

  • Job creation is prioritised and the Job Summit agreements are effectively implemented
  • All workers have access to skills and training that meet the challenges of the future
  • There is an end to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability and HIV status in the workplace
  • The wide income differentials are addressed
  • All vulnerable workers are protected
  • Farm and domestic workers have minimum wages and improved conditions of employment
  • An adequate social safety net is in place to support workers who are retrenched
  • Workers` health and safety is improved through the reduction of occupational diseases and workplace injuries and fatalities
  • Stable labour relations are promoted and dispute resolution Systems continue to be improved
  • There is the very best Batho Pele in the Department of Labour

I am committed in my period as the Minister of Labour to make this happen. But the successful transformation of the labour market cannot depend on government alone. Rather it requires the concerted and determined effort of government, acting in partnership with the masses of our people - through organised formations such as COSATU - which stand to gain from this transformation.

But how do you ensure that workers are not reduced to sympathetic spectators? How do you live up to the challenge of being the makers of your own history and active participants in determining the future of labour market, our industries and our country? How do you reposition yourselves to face the challenges of the new millenium?

It is stating the obvious to say that the terrain on which we are operating today is dramatically different from that of the previous era. But it may be less obvious to ask what is it that you need to do now, on the eve of the new millenium, that is fundamentally different from 1989. What are the characteristics of the new breed of workers and worker leaders and the nature of the new breed of unions that will equip you to meet these challenges and ensure the success of the transformation project? COSATU has much greater responsibility. The responsibility to fight for the bread and butter issues of members and also to defend the National Democratic Revolution.

Job creation

We are all agreed that one of the most vexing problems that we continue to face is the high unemployment levels and job losses.

We have also agreed on the need to ensure sustainable economic growth and the promotion of investment in our economy to address the crisis. What do we need to do to ensure that our actions contribute to the attainment of these objectives?

Government has given job creation top priority. As the President stressed in his opening address to parliament: "Job creation, the opening up of opportunities for all our people to earn an honest livelihood as well as the protection of the rights of all our working people, remain matters of critical concern to the Government."

Government, business, labour, the community constituency and other signatories to the Job Summit Declaration in October last year agreed: "Success depends on restructuring and building a vibrant and sustainable economy. Each and every one of us must be part of this work. It is not the work of the government or any one social partner alone."

We have already begun to work in partnership on this issue and we have been meeting regularly with yourselves and other social partners in the Jobs Summit Supervisory Committee, whose task it is to monitor the implementation of the agreements reached.

As government, we have developed a clear and comprehensive approach to job creation. Our job creation strategy rests on the following four pillars:

The first pillar relates to the restructuring of the economy to promote growth, investment and sustainable employment. Steps have been taken and will be intensified, including bold developmental initiatives at the industrial, sectoral, regional and national levels. Examples include the spatial development initiatives along the corridor to Maputo and at Coega in the Eastern Cape.

The second pillar relates to the proper co-ordination of economic and social policies, especially the harmonisation of macro-economic policies, supply-side trade and industry initiatives, social and economic infrastructure policies, and labour market policies in a manner that maximises their impact on employment creation and the removal of impediments to job creation.

Our third pillar is a comprehensive social security policy to ameliorate the impact of massive retrenchments occasioned by the restructuring of the economy and aimed at rehabilitating communities economically depressed by such massive lay-offs. The Social Plan agreed to at the Job Summit is being implemented but needs to be complemented by other measures.

Our fourth pillar is a comprehensive human resource development strategy co-ordinated between the Departments of Education and Labour. Modern production methods require skilled workers and such workers are in short supply in South Africa.

We in the Department of Labour have also intensified our particular contribution to addressing joblessness, with a particular emphasis on skills development made possible by the Skills Development Act and Skills Levies Act.

Over the next five years, I am confident that, firstly, the skills of the workforce will be upgraded to meet the challenges of economic restructuring and changes in the nature of production. Secondly, that skills will be provided to facilitate infrastructural delivery and the development of micro-, small and medium scale enterprises. Thirdly, that the level of investment in education and training will be increased and that there will be an improved return on this investment and fourthly that, as a result, the employment prospects of youth, rural women and other vulnerable sectors of the community will be enhanced.

Recently, as the chairperson of the Interministerial Committee on the Jobs Summit, I announced the key areas of progress that government has made in fulfilling its obligations arising from the Summit. These include the setting up of Integrated Provincial Projects such as at Coega and Lubombo, progress in establishing 6 000 learnerships in the tourism sector, the implementation of key aspects of the Social Plan, local economic development initiatives including at Mooi River, the piloting of mass rental housing projects, a draft framework for a comprehensive social security system and the allocation of additional funds for job creation initiatives.

What has been the contribution of our social partners: organised business and labour? Both constituencies have launched job creation funds, namely the Business Trust and the Job Creation Trust. These, together with the Umsobomvu Fund, are in the process of operationalising the funds and getting the money moving to concrete projects.

I can only express my support for COSATU`s initiative to raise funds for job creation. The majority of your members earn low wages and can only be admired for having made a sacrifice of one day`s wages towards the Job Creation Fund. The R l 8,7 million that you have raised is a credit to your organising and mobilising capacity and flies in the face of claims that you as organised workers are ignoring the plight of the unemployed.

Nevertheless the seriousness of the unemployment crisis that continues to bedevil our country demands a critical assessment of the extent to which all our actions contribute to the resolution of the problem. Can we confidently claim that we have cemented an "Alliance for Jobs"? When we mark the first anniversary of the Jobs Summit in just over two months` time, will you be in a position to report back to workers on the utilisation of the Job Creation Fund and announce what we have achieved in taking forward our Jobs Summit commitments and other measures to enhance job creation?

The manner in which we address these issues will determine the extent to which we can truly say that we have correctly positioned ourselves to meet the challenges of the new millenium. Otherwise we may find ourselves faced with a new revolution, a revolution of the unemployed and the poor clamouring for the right to jobs and aimed at those perceived to be in the more comfortable positions in the labour market.

We are all aware that our political detractors inside and outside parliament, claiming to speak on behalf of the unemployed, have consistently attacked new labour legislation. They continue to perpetuate the myths that labour laws have resulted in job losses and that the regulation of the labour market is directed at protecting what they call the "privileged working elite" against the interests of the unemployed. Some even call for the Department of Labour to be abolished.

Negative perceptions of the labour market continue to exist within the business sector in South Africa, who in turn influence the perceptions of their counterparts abroad. This has a potentially adverse impact on investment in our country and consequently on growth and job creation. This situation poses a number of challenges, including for yourselves, in positioning yourselves for the new millenium. It raises questions of the role of labour in promoting dialogue with business to address these perceptions.

It raises questions of the depth of social partnership, when on the one hand tripartite agreement is reached on key policy issues while on the other, parties fail to take responsibility for defending positions which they have agreed are necessary.

I have stated in my 15-point programme that the causes of high unemployment are multifaceted and that the problem cannot be addressed by labour market policies alone, but requires the alignment and harmonisation of macro-economic, industrial, trade and other policies. This is indeed a position on which there is agreement among social partners.

Secondly, the thrust of labour market reforms is consistent with - and indeed promotes - the achievement of the social and economic imperatives of employment creation, economic growth and efficiency, equity and the alleviation of poverty.

I also stated that I believe that our current legislative framework reflects an appropriate balance between labour market flexibility and security, a balance to which I remain committed.

Our approach to labour market policy aims to forge a middle route between the extremes of unqualified labour market flexibility or deregulation on the one hand and an over-regulation on the other.

Whatever the realities of the situation, dealing with the issue of the impact of perceptions of the labour market on investment and job creation remains an important challenge for all of us. As our president, Thabo Mbeki, said in his State of the Nation address at the opening of parliament, "If perceptions or realities influence the process negatively, these must be addressed". Whose responsibility is this? I believe it is our responsibility.

I challenge you at this Special Congress and other constitutional structures that your should, have an open and frank debate and discussion about these critical questions relating to the impact of our laws on employment levels and what should be done about this.

A number of areas of concern have been put on the table by the various parties, including yourselves. Let us debate the concerns and seek to reach common conclusions. I have not closed my mind on any one of the issues that are on the table but I am determined to have the debate and dialogue.


All of us have committed ourselves to the restructuring and transformation of the economy and the state. What are the implications of this commitment? We have the alarming situation where retrenchments are continuing unabated. This is despite the fact that we have provisions in the law and in agreements such as the Social Plan to address this situation.

Given the damaging social consequences of large-scale job losses, the challenge as we enter the new millenium is to clearly identify the cause of the problem and the solution. Are we saying, like our detractors, that the problem lies with our labour laws. Are we saying that the LRA and section 189 in particular is the cause of job losses? And are we promising those faced with this terrible prospect that an amendment to section 189 will, like a magic wand, bring to a halt the shedding of jobs as a result of restructuring?

Should we not also be raising the question of how successful we have been in using the power of organised workers to transform and democratise their workplaces, and to effectively assert viable alternatives to job losses within this context?

How do organised workers reposition themselves to shift from a defensive role restricted to negotiating fair packages once job losses are already a reality? And how do you secure a more strategic role in which you are integral to conceptualising restructuring from the word go?

These are not easy questions, but arriving at the answers are critical as you reposition yourselves to face the challenges of the new millenium.

Labour market stability

An important aspect of our vision of the labour market is, as I have said, stable and sound labour relations. We have overhauled the labour relations environment to address the high levels of adversarialism and conflict that characterised the labour market under apartheid. We have established formidable and more efficient institutions to deliver a stable labour relations system. But we need to ask ourselves, how effective have we been in reducing the turbulence that we have agreed is necessary in building a labour market conducive to economic growth and stability? This too is a challenge which we have a common responsibility to address as we reposition ourselves for the new millenium.

The Workplace Renaissance

I want to now focus more specifically on ensuring that the package of new labour legislation we have introduced fundamentally transforms our labour market and our workplaces. Are we positioned to ensure a "workplace renaissance" across our economy.

As Government, we would like to see our laws bring equity and efficiency to workplaces. We want to see workplaces rid of discrimination, adversarial conflict and poor and unhealthy working conditions.

We want to see workplaces that are able to address head on the challenges of the HIV / AIDS pandemic. But our vision goes beyond this.

We also want to see well-trained workers, interactive and co-operative workplace relations, new management capacities, a diverse workforce and efficient dispute settlement processes. This is what we hope that our labour relations and skills development policies should support and enable.

How do we achieve this? This challenge rests fundamentally with you. The laws which you have helped forge are your tools and weapons. You need to pick up these tools and use them to shape your own destiny. I want to raise this in relation to a number of specific issues.

Firstly, let me address the situation of vulnerable workers and I want to emphasise what you have already acknowledged in your preparations for this Congress. We have passed laws but it is up to you to ensure that vulnerable workers such as farm and domestic workers directly benefit from these new laws.

This requires the organisation and mobilisation of these workers, many of whom still suffer appalling conditions and atrocities. It requires support and capacity building. It requires statements of condemnation when workers are painted with silver. The investigation of minimum wages for farm and domestic workers is underway. The deadline for comments is next week.

Unfortunately the contributions and submissions of COSATU and its affiliates on this critical issue has been disappointing. I would have expected that you would ensure that the voice of these workers could be heard. Instead, I have received lots of negative comments from those who would prefer to see little improvement in the conditions of workers in these neglected sectors.

Secondly, let me turn to opportunities that you as organised workers - to be frank - are squandering. The new LRA brought down the barriers of trade union registration. And what have we seen? We have had union splits and rival factions registering themselves and fighting for members. Many new unions are emerging - there are close to 500 registered unions at present.

Worse still, I have had employers at my door. What are they asking? What should we do, we support sectoral bargaining but in our company in the majority there is a company based union that wants us to negotiate at plant level. Another employer asks what should they do because "workers are on strike because the union has decided to `fire the shop stewards`."

No, comrades, I don`t want to have to face employers on issues like this. It discredits our whole project to transform our labour laws. I am encouraged by the commitments in your Congress resolutions to continue to consolidate unions, organise the unorganised and improve service to membership. It is my hope that this will bear fruit.

Thirdly, I would like to raise the challenge of disputes resolution and enforcement of our labour laws. We are all proud of the CCMA and the fact that it has made such a significant difference to dispute resolution. However, again I am worried that we may all be taking advantage of a good thing.

The recent CCMA Annual Report said that last year 2 500 disputes were either withdrawn or cancelled. This means that 2 500 workers, in most cases, wasted public resources to open cases and did not pursue them.

I have also heard reports that workers prefer to use the CCMA than internally agreed upon procedures, because the CCMA offers a better service.

Comrades, if we continue to flood the CCMA with cases when there are more appropriate places to go, then we begin to weaken the effectiveness of the CCMA and reduce access to the CCMA of those most in need of its services.

The CCMA is in its third year of operation. We would like to see it focus more on preventative work, on strengthening and supporting bargaining councils, on addressing the problems facing farm workers and workers of small employers. It requires organised labour to use the services of the CCMA in a more focused and strategic way.

In respect of enforcement and monitoring, I believe that unions have a critical role to play in ensuring that employers who do not comply with the law are brought to book. This cannot depend on the Department of Labour inspectors alone. It is also up to you, union organisers and shop stewards to be our eyes and ears on the ground. It requires higher levels of organisation and discipline to effectively address the bread and butter issues of workers in every workplace.

If you identify abuse of worker rights and disregard of the law, you should be taking the initiative to ensure that the issues are taken to the correct forum for a remedy. As raised already, I believe you need to stand up for the more vulnerable and defenseless workers like those in part-time employment or on contract.

Finally, I want to raise the new struggle that we all face. That of HIV / AIDS. I am encouraged by resolutions at this Congress on this issue. HIV / AIDS is a human rights issue. It is an employment equity issue. It is a health and safety issue. And it is an economic issue.

We need to deal with this issue on all fronts. We need to make sure that workers are not discriminated against on the basis of their HIV status. We need to stop HIV testing as the Employment Equity Act now requires. And we need to ensure that employers introduce supportive and preventative workplace programmes.


Comrade chair, the first five years have been a period of laying the foundation for fundamental change in our workplaces. The issues I have raised above are just some of a complex array of challenges we face. If we can deal with them effectively and collectively, we can make this change happen.

We can see a workplace renaissance in the next period. If we can do this, then we will have met the challenge of the millenium.

We have reached a stage where the specific interests of different sectors and organisations need to be tempered with the desire to enhance the public good and society`s interests, particularly is so far as the interests of the most vulnerable groups, those who are unemployed and under-employed, are concerned.

In our search for the appropriate balance between promoting efficiency and safeguarding the safety, security and welfare of workers we should together continuously seek solutions to labour market problems that promote our national vision of deepening and consolidating democracy in every sphere of our society.

Finally, I wish to congratulate the new leadership of COSATU. I am looking forward to cementing the partnership we have built over the past period and wish you well as you take up the challenge of decisively leading COSATU into the new millenium.

I thank you.