24-hour workday for South Africa – how it would have to work

 ·24 May 2024

A 2022 proposal to ‘unlock’ a nighttime economy and boost economic growth in Joburg is still being looked at – and legal experts say it’s well within South Africa’s laws to make it happen.

Mention of a 24-hour work cycle first cropped up in 2022, when the city hosted an engagement session through which members of the property, investment and business sectors proposed a 24-hour work day to “unleash endless opportunities for efficiency, growth, and employment in the city”.

In the proposed system, Johannesburg would model itself after other first-world cities such as New York, Buenos Aires, or Tokyo, which benefit significantly from a night-time economy. Residents and tourists in these cities enjoy twenty-four-hour cafés, supermarkets, cinemas, gyms, public transport, and other services.

This would not only boost economic activity in the city but would also help address the growing unemployment crisis, by introducing an entire second shift of work that would need more employees to manage.

Following the session, the City of Joburg noted that while no formal proposal for this type of 24-hour model had been made, it would be considered.

Fast forward to 2024, the city did not return comment on the proposal or any progress – if any – was being made; but legal firms BusinessTech spoke to noted being involved in some form or process around the topic, implying that some work is being done.

Joburg is not alone in this thinking, either. 24-hour city models have been brought up in plans for Tshwane and Cape Town has been cited as a city most suitable to take advantage of such a model.

Some of the biggest considerations raised in response to the 24-hour system centred around safety and security as well as the country’s power crisis. However, there are also questions around whether South Africa’s labour laws make provision for such a cycle, and what would need to change to make it work.

Labour laws allow it to work

According to Thato Makoaba, Associate Designate, in the Employment Law practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH), South Africa’s current labour laws cater for a ’24-hour work’ day as conceptualised in a ‘two shift’ system.

The key catch is that the law does not provide for a single employee to lawfully work continuously for 24 hours.

“Employees are entitled to a daily rest period of at least 12 hours between ending and recommencing work—this applies to those earning below the threshold.

“In the circumstances (of a ‘city that never sleeps’), employees would have to work shifts in order to accommodate for the 24-hour workday model.”

Makoaba said that night work is already regulated by South African labour laws – and the important consideration with a 24-hour workday model is that employers can’t force night work on employees.

“Rather night work can only be implemented by way of agreement between the employer and employee—again, this applies to those earning below the threshold.”

Given that laws already cater for this, it wouldn’t be necessary to introduce specific legislation to make a 24-hour workday possible, Makoaba said—but that does not mean that it would be easy to do.

“This type of model may potentially open employers up to increased liability. For instance, employee safety at the workplace remains the employer’s responsibility for employees working night shifts,” the legal expert said.

Occupational health and safety laws oblige employers to ensure that the night time environment is a safe work place as far as reasonable practicable. Employers will also be obliged in terms of the basic conditions of employment to provide transportation for employees working in the evenings and to pay such employees an allowance.

“The 24-hour week is therefore to some extent more onerous for employers, from both a financial and a safety compliance perspective,” Makoba said.

“Failure to comply with the labour laws in place when implementing the 24-hour week could potentially lead to employers facing liability.”

Read: The 4-day work week is not for South Africa: expert

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