Court Victory, and Challenge, for South African Workers

The Constitutional Court of South Africa determined in a historic ruling late last week that workers placed by labor recruiters must be made permanent after three months at the company where they worked on temporary status, entitling them to the same pay, benefits and job security afforded to full-time employees, but labor organizations expect a protracted fight to enforce the ruling.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions’ (SAFTU), described the victory as “unprecedented,” congratulating the National Union of Minworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) for its successful—almost four-year battle—through South Africa’s labor courts and the Constitutional Court.

The ruling puts employers on notice, he said. “Sorry, you are going to have to treat all workers the same” finally giving meaning to the ILO Convention which requires equal pay for work of equal value,” said Vavi in a broadcast interview.

However, the Court stopped short of banning labor recruiting, or broking, outright, for which South Africa’s unions and federations have long advocated. Short of a ban, workers say, trade unions and labor federations expect challenges to ensuring enforcement of the ruling.

Sizwe Pamla, a spokesperson of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), said it was unfortunate that the ruling still “justified” labor brokers, whom he said were “trading in workers.”

NUMSA’s general secretary, Irvin Jim warned that workers “still remain vulnerable” under the new ruling because recruiters “will try to do every trick: They will try to replace the worker before three months [end]; they will try to remove him.”

South Africa’s workers have long argued that employers use so-called “temporary” workers to avoid the higher cost of employing permanent workers, an arrangement from which labor brokers profit.

To enforce the ruling, Vavi said, unions and federations must educate workers about their new rights under this ruling.

The Constitutional Court verdict overturns a 2015 judgment that labor recruiters and their clients are dual employers, thus making employers the direct responsible parties for all workers in their workplace after three months. Temporary workers earning $15,500 per year or less are covered by the ruling.

Labor recruitment in South Africa generated more than 2.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2013, employing over 1 million so-called temporary workers, or 7.5 percent of total employment.