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How can the concept of ‘decent work’ create a thriving and sustainable building industry in the Western Cape?

‘Decent work’ not only ensures excellent working conditions, but a sustainable building industry as well. The Building Industry Bargaining Council unpacks the role of employers, workers and the public at large

The concept of ‘decent work’ is one that government, labour unions, employers and market analysts encourage if South Africa is to further its growth ambitions.

The idea is that work is not only seen as a source of income but a vehicle for personal dignity, societal stability and job creation.

However, as Luyanda Mgqamqo, labour spokesperson for the Western Cape-based Building Industry Bargaining Council (BIBC) points out, decent work can only be realised when there are meaningful benefits for employees.

“This has advantages for both employer and employees in that labour turnover is limited while labour is also migrated from informal to formal employment. This in turn increases productivity and creates a safer building industry,” Mgqamqo says.

The country’s construction sector, of which the building industry forms a significant part, is an important player in job creation with an impact on a range of other sectors such as manufacturing, mining, transportation, real estate, and business services. It accounts for 8% of total registered employment with a 2.5% share of nominal GDP.

At the same time, it is also worth noting that about 70% of labour employed in the construction industry

is semi-, low- and unskilled.

In 2022, the governments of South Africa and Switzerland, in partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), officially launched the ILO Productivity Ecosystems for Decent Work programme, which identifies the root causes of decent work deficits and develops capacity and local and national actions to address them.

But Mgqamqo says the reality is that stakeholder engagement is not always possible in the informal sector, leading to exploitation and other unintended consequences.

He says there can be very little chance of decent work without upskilling the building sector’s workforce.

The decline of skilled personnel, particularly artisans, puts the industry at risk and must be addressed systematically to ensure that the sector attracts and retains recognised skilled employees, Mgqamqo adds.

The BIBC has played a significant role in ensuring building sector employees receive meaningful benefits.

It has achieved this by focusing on four key pillars, the first being “Productive Employment and Sustainable Enterprise”, which is evident in a workforce that comprises a core team with the requisite skills to contribute productively to the types of building activities performed. New entrants to the business will also be exposed to learning opportunities.

The second pillar, “Standards and Basic Rights at Work”, focuses on collective bargaining which provides a platform for all labour players to engage in negotiations for minimum wages to be improved at industry-level, ensuring that labour costs are standardised. When every workplace negotiates directly with employees on wages and employment benefits, strikes and work stoppages often occur.

“Social Security/Social Protection for all” is the third pillar and involves negotiating at industry level for improved wages and employee benefits for all, even those at the lowest level. Labourers picked up at the roadside, on the other hand, most likely will be paid exploitative wages and no benefits.

The fourth and final pillar, “Promotion of Social Dialogue, including Collective Bargaining”, emphasises the mandate of bargaining councils with respect to dispute prevention and resolution.

According to Danie Hattingh, the BIBC’s spokesperson for business, employers also have a responsibility to create conditions conducive to advancing the decent work agenda.

This can be done by providing solid employment opportunities, upholding rights at work in compliance with labour laws, respecting the collective bargaining process and communicating effectively with employees.

In addition, the public at large – encompassing all stakeholders in society who benefit from and influence the labour market in the building industry – can ensure the provision of decent work in a variety of ways.

“They can provide work to employers who are registered with the BIBC, demonstrate ethical labour practices, including patronising businesses that are known for treating their employees well,” Hattingh says.

“They can also support policies and regulations that protect workers’ rights, such as fair wages, benefits, reasonable working hours and safe working conditions.”

Other ways the public can contribute include supporting financial institutions and investment funds that prioritise ethical practices. Stakeholders should also be willing to pay fair prices for building services and projects, understanding that lower costs often come at the expense of decent living wages.

“Government initiatives aimed at improving labour conditions and promoting decent work should be supported, while collaborations with non-profit organisations (like the BIBC) can make a substantial impact,” Hattingh says.

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