The new government has committed itself to dealing with the unemployment crisis in South Africa. Government uses the term ‘decent work’, which was popularised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) when referring to its plans to tackle unemployment.
The ILO explanation of the concept is as follows: “Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”
The ILO says that the aim of ensuring decent work applies to all men and women, irrespective of where they work or their type of work. Workers in both the formal sector and the informal sector should have decent work. The notion of pursuing a decent work agenda in a country such as South Africa, where unemployment is very high, may seem utopian to some. It will not be in the interest of many employers. It will require a massive change in mindsets and culture. However, we have to realise that inhumane and unjust treatment of people should not be allowed to continue in our society or globally.
The ILO says that decent work is captured in four strategic aims: fundamental principles and rights at work and international labour standards, employment and income opportunities, social protection and social security, and social dialogue and tripartism. Therefore, government has committed itself not only to ensuring the creation of more jobs but also to working towards ensuring that there are decent work opportunities for all South Africans of working age. This goal will mean change to many existing jobs in the formal and informal sectors. This cannot be achieved overnight. It is a goal that will reshape all economic policies and will have to be a primary aim when these policies are implemented. Further, decent work is a goal that is more achievable in one country if most other countries in the world also strive for it.
The way we conceive competition and competitiveness has to change if the goal of decent work is to be achieved. Countries that have decent work standards will have to protect their economies from the underpriced imports of countries where workers are underpaid and ill-treated.
The global financial crisis and the painful economic crisis we are currently living through have helped us realise that we cannot afford to let a small group of powerful people do whatever they want to. The extent of the damage to the environment has also taught us that regulation is required to ensure that the price of goods and services should reflect the total true cost of production.
These examples show that self- regulation does not work and that the State has to step in to ensure that the stability of society is ensured. Individuals and businesses will, generally, not consider the extent of the risks and costs that their self-interested actions impose on society as a whole. Further, we have realised that global coordination and global standards are required. Individual countries will often not consider the impact of their actions on other countries. Corporations of countries with higher standards will move their operations to countries with lower standards.
We cannot allow the greed and self-interest of some people to harm others and prevent them from enjoying fruitful and fulfilling working lives. The damage to society and the globe of allowing the continued oppressive and exploitative treatment of workers is immense. Social instability and violence are but two consequences of failure to adequately regulate labour markets. We should actively support government’s commitment to decent work for all South Africans.