Changes to work hours in South Africa face major hurdles: expert

 ·3 May 2023

Director of Employment Law practice at commercial law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, Hugo Pienaar, says that potentially reducing South Africa’s working hours is likely to face significant roadblocks, especially when it comes to bargaining councils and wage negotiations.

In a parliamentary Q&A in April, the Department of Employment and Labour said 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.

The department said that investigations into reducing work hours had been conducted in the past and that 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.

“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.

According to Pienaar, the department’s plans and intentions will likely run into stumbling blocks as it explores this avenue.

Pienaar said that, before the Covid-19 pandemic, many were shocked at discussions around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the digitization of work, and the creation of ‘gig’ platforms, citing these changes to the labour environment as radical.

“A few moments after that, the world was rapidly plunged into a new normal, first with the performance of fully remote work, and now, a hybrid model between in-person and remote functions.”

In this new era, he said, much debate has been sparked around the reduction of working hours, and concepts like implementing a four-day working week. This concept is not novel, however.

“At the 46th International Labour Convention on 26 June 1962, the International Labour Organization adopted the Reduction of Hours of Work Recommendation (No. 116), which notably sought to indicate practical measures for the progressive reduction of hours of work, taking into account the different economic and social conditions in different countries as well as the variety of national practices for the regulation of hours and other conditions of work.

“Article I(4) of the Recommendation states, ‘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’. The social standard indicated in the preamble of the recommendation is that of a 40-hour working week.”

In a South African context, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) stipulate a maximum 45-hour work week, with the intention of reducing this to 40 hours in line with the ILO recommendation.

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.

According to Pienaar, however, the department wants particular focus for the research into new work hours to be placed on sectors earning minimum wage.

Pienaar said that, at its inception, it was widely accepted that a 40-hour work-week model would only be suitable for certain industries in South Africa, as the majority of working South Africans form part of industries such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing.

These sectors’ working hours are highly regulated by main collective agreements and sectoral determinations. In many of those sectors, salaries are directly linked to hours worked, he said.

“The challenge of such a model lies largely in its potential implementation and potential amendments to the Wage Bill – more so in highly unionised environments where negotiations on basic conditions of employment are particularly complex,” Pienaar said.

“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.”

Read: Big changes for work hours in South Africa could be coming

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