Big changes on the cards for work hours in South Africa – but there’s a catch

 ·15 Apr 2023

The South African government is taking notice of the growing international trend for revised work hours and may look at reviewing its stance on this in the coming years.

However, legal experts from Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH) said that revised work hours in law – an alternative to the 40-hour work week – would not be suitable in South Africa as many of the country’s employees are in time-sensitive industries, such as mining, agriculture or manufacturing.

Further, these sectors’ working hours are highly regulated through collective agreements and sectoral determinations, with salaries often linked to hours worked rather than production.

Despite this, the Department of Employment and Labour has advised that there is room for further research on working hours in South Africa.

The last time the department looked into altering working hour standards was in 2014, by the Employment Conditions Commission.

The department said: “There might be a need to conduct more research to track the progress that has been made in reducing the working hours since the last report and also to establish the feasibility of reducing hours of work – and the unintended consequences thereof.”

Although interest in new working hours has been piqued, the department said there would need to be a particular focus on sectors earning the minimum wage.

In addition to this, the reduction of working hours already forms part of the proposals under discussion at the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s Labour Law Reform Task Team, with the Congress of South African Trade Unions having tabled a 40-hour working week for discussion as early as 3 March 2021, it said.

According to CHD, a significant challenge facing potential amendments to the country’s working standards is that South Africa is a highly unionised market where negotiations on basic conditions of employment are very complex.

“Notwithstanding, the topic of reduced hours of work without loss of pay may easily find its way to the tables of collective bargaining, which may radically alter the labour space for a time.”

Recent research from Oxford University has revealed that South African workers have some of the longest hours in the world.

The study was conducted in over 50 countries between 1950 and 2017 and recorded the average annual working hours per employee.

The results were consistent with the data released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that placed South African employees’ average work hours within the 40-48 hour workweek, with 21% of the workforce working 49 hours per week or more.

International trend

As far back as 1962, the International Labour Convention published recommendations for reducing work hours, which sought to indicate practical measures to reduce hours of work considering varying social and economic conditions unique to countries, said Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

“Article I(4) of the Recommendation provides that: “normal hours of work should be progressively reduced, when appropriate, … without any reduction in the wages of the workers as at the time hours of work are reduced”,” said the law firm.

“The social standard indicated in the preamble of the Recommendation is that of a 40-hour working week.”

With news of a possible end to fully remote work and prominent celebrity CEOs such as Elon Musk pushing for employees to return to work, issues around workers’ rights, their workplace environment and the time they spend in the office have raised eyebrows across the globe.

With Commentary from Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

Read: Businesses respond to new BEE and transformation laws

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter