Big changes for work hours in South Africa could be coming

 ·3 Apr 2023

The Department of Employment and Labour says there is room to conduct further research on work hours in South Africa, saying there is a need to investigate the feasibility of reducing them.

Responding to a parliamentary Q&A this past week, the department said that investigations into reducing work hours had been conducted in the past. The country’s current 45-hour maximum workweek was one of the markers of this research.

However, it suggested that further research and new studies need to be conducted – looking at the possibility of reducing them further.

The remarks come in the context of research by Oxford University, showing that South African workers have some of the longest working hours in the world. The research tracked working hours in over 50 countries between 1950 and 2017, showing average working hours per employee on an annual basis.

The findings are reflective of the data coming out of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which also ranks South African employees and their average work hours similarly. The ILO’s data shows that, although most South African workers fall within a 40-48 hr work week, 21% of the workforce work 49 hrs per week or more.

According to the department, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) provides that the maximum normal working hours allowed are 45 hours weekly (excluding overtime).

The BCEA forms a set of basic employment rights that apply to all workers in South Africa who earn below a certain threshold.

From 1 March 2023, the annual earnings threshold for the BCEA has been set to R241,110.59 a year, or approximately R20,092 a month. Anyone earning above this threshold would not be held to the prescripts of the BCEA, including work hours. This would then be something that needs to be negotiated with employers when setting up contracts.

According to the BCEA, the current laws are in place governing working hours are as follows:

Workers must not work more than:

  • 45 hours in any week.
  • 9 hours a day if a worker works 5 days or less a week.
  • 8 hours a day if a worker works more than 5 days a week.
  • Compressed work week: You may agree to work up to 12 hours a day without paid overtime. This agreement must be in writing. When working a compressed working week, workers can’t work more than 45 hours a week, 10 hours overtime or 5 days a week.

A collective agreement may allow working hours to be averaged over a period of up to 4 months. Agreeing to this, a worker can’t work more than an average of 45 ordinary hours a week and 5 hours of overtime a week. A collective agreement for averaging must be re-negotiated each year.

These laws do not apply to senior managers (those who can hire, discipline and dismiss workers); sales staff who travel; workers who work less than 24 hours a month; and those doing emergency work are excluded from certain provisions.

According to the department, the BCEA specifies 45 hours, but this does not mean employers should regard 45 hours as the going rate.

“The BCEA allows for the hours to be revised downward through collective bargaining agreements and contractual agreements entered into between employers and employees,” it said.

Citing the ILO, the department said that normal working hours should be progressively reduced when appropriate, with a view of attaining a “social standard” without a reduction in wages of the workers at the time hours of work are reduced.

To this end, the BCEA has a goal to reduce work hours to a 40-hour working week.

However, research in a local context is lacking, the department said.

The now-defunct Employment Conditions Commission last investigated the feasibility of reducing hours back in 2014. At the time, the research found that progress had been made in reducing hours between 2006 and 2012 for certain industries:

  • The textile and construction industries as a whole were brought in line with the goal;
  • The glass sector was working between 40 and 42 hours;
  • The sugar manufacturing industry was reduced to 43 hours from 46 hours before;
  • The metal and engineering industry has been on a 40-hour work week since 2002;
  • The public service is 99% on a 40-hour week.

However, there has been no update on working hours since the last study – and the country has faced many changes since then, including black swan events like the Covid-19 pandemic, which severely disrupted the way South Africans work.

The department said that the functions of the commission have since been taken over by the National Minimum Wage Commission.

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

The particular focus should be on sectors that are earning the minimum wage – such as domestic workers and farm workers, it said.

It said that working hours already form part of the proposals under discussion at the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s (Nedlac’s) Labour Law Reform Task Team.

Read: Big change for employees in South Africa from March – what you need to know

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