Internationally ‘labour flexibility’ has been the philosophy guiding state and employer reform of labour markets over the past 20 to 30 years, ostensibly in response to intensified competition caused by globalization. Employers have completely reorganized the employment relation by increasingly using more and more contract or casual labour. In some instances such labour is directly employed, in others it is supplied by temporary employment services, or labour brokers. So dramatic is this reorganization of the employment relation that in at least 29% of cases at the CCMA involving labour brokers, workers do not know who their employer is. The overall effect of this change in the employment relation has been to dramatically weaken all workers and the trade unions, opening workers up to extreme exploitation in the process. Trade unions globally are struggling to come to terms with this new terrain of organizing, with both the traditional worker and traditional workplace having been radically transformed.
In the South African context economic sectors historically associated with temporary and casual work, such as Retail, Hospitality and Construction, casualised or informal work have come to dominate, to the point where such work is now the norm. It is no longer possible to talk about such work as ‘atypical’ in these sectors. Permanent employment in these sectors is now atypical. But casualised, fixed contract and labour broker workers are now widespread throughout the economy, and increasingly make up the majority or a large minority of individual workplaces across economic sectors. Between 2000 and 2011, the economy shed 21 % of permanent jobs.
In that same period, there was a 64% increase in temporary employment. Adcorp, the country’s largest labour broker, estimates that there are 976 418 labour broker workers covered by bargaining councils alone. This is a very high number, considering that bargaining councils, firstly, cover a relatively small number of workers. A study by the University of Cape Town (UCT) estimates that the number of workers covered by bargaining councils has dropped from 19.8% to 11.8%. The total number of labour broker workers across the economy is estimated to be much, much higher. A different UCT study conservatively estimates that there are in excess of 3000 firms operating in the formal economy alone, with potentially as many as 9000 operating in what it refers to as the informal economy.
Secondly, bargaining councils represent relatively highly organized sectors, with relatively strong, established trade unions in them. Yet, these unions seem unable or unwilling to stem the growing move towards temporary work. As the UCT study into labour broking notes:
“The metal and engineering industry has South Africa’s largest and best resourced union…it does not appear the union has been effective in organizing workers placed by labour brokers. In general, it appears that the larger, established unions are at best ambivalent about the organizing of workers placed by TESs…”
TESs refer to temporary employment services, also known as labour brokers.