WORKERS’ DAY 2015: Putting workers first


Putting workers first

Today  is Workers’ Day.  Leo Tolstoy said “work is the inevitable condition of human life, the true source of human welfare.” As we reflect upon the role of workers in society, despite the perpetuation of work being dominated by  the role of employers, we are reminded of the enormous progress that has been made.  The reality is that up to the middle of the twentieth century, work was characterised by slavery, exploitation, discrimination and the gross violation of human and worker’s rights all over the world.  Jeremy Cronin reminds us of the perpetuation of inequalities in certain sectors of the South African economy. He states in the Sunday Times: “Black workers and the urban poor continue to be hugely disadvantaged by their geographical marginalization in dormitory townships.”

Work is the inevitable condition of human life, the true source of human welfare.”
Leo Tolstoy

However, there is sufficient reason to believe that the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg has more to do about work and unemployment than xenophobia per se.  At the centre of the crisis is the reality that in an environment of high unemployment, South Africans and non-South African compete for work and that opportunities and resources for both groups are limited.  Perhaps it is appropriate today on Workers’ Day to focus on the central need of the xenophobia debate, i.e.  the need for work.

The history of the Workers’ Day goes back to the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, (USA) where police tried to disperse a large crowd of striking workers who were demanding shorter hours of work. A bomb was thrown at the policemen by an unidentified assailant resulting in the law enforcers firing live ammunition at the defenceless crowd. Since then this day has been used by the working class across the world to emphasise the need for fair labour practices and conditions of employment.     In South Africa on Workers’ Day we also celebrate the role played by trade unions and other labour movements in the struggle against apartheid.

However, over the last three decades across the world, there was more progress in workers’ rights than in the history of work before. The recent trend toward an employment value proposition, very often reflected in awards such as “the best company to work for”, signifies a shift towards a full realisation of the importance of creating a work environment where employees can flourish, as employers realize that this contributes directly to the “bottom line”.  The world’s first set of National HR Standards developed by SABPP in 2013 is further evidence of the need to  get the centre of any organisation right, i.e. work.  Without work there is no organisation.  We can now reflect on the 3 R’s we celebrate today:

  • Rights: Today workers have rights in many countries, and these rights are enshrined in national constitutions, national bill of rights in many nations, international labour standards and a focus on decent work, taken through to national labour legislation, codes and regulations.  In certain areas, such as health and safety, significant progress has been made in most parts of the world.
  • Responsibilities: Despite the focus on worker rights, most employees realise that they have a co-responsibility with management to make a meaningful contribution to productivity in workplaces. For instance, without the active contribution of workers, safety at work will remain a pipedream.
  • Results: Workers have contributed to performance, sustained their families, provided products and services to customers, grown their companies and industries, as well as societies and economies.  While management, with the support of high level specialists such as engineers and architects, designed and planned the construction of buildings, not a single building would have arisen without the sweat and meticulous hard work of labour.

In celebrating the above, we are reminded that we need to continue striving towards exercising our rights, accepting our responsibilities, and achieving results.  At times, further sacrifices may be needed to achieve an optimum balance between rights, responsibilities and results.

However, work and the workplace has changed dramatically over the last five years given unprecedented advances in technology. The question is whether workers have also changed.  Are we as workers and employers ready for the technological revolution spearheaded by advanced technological innovation and the explosion of social media?  The latter phenomenon has already toppled governments through the power of instant communication, connection and engagement as the new source of individualised and collective empowerment and democratisation.  Despite fair labour laws and the gains made by workers in recent times, the reality is that workers still face significant challenges that could take decades to resolve:

  • The pursuit of equal opportunities is an ongoing reality worldwide, and not a single government can proudly proclaim that inequality in terms of race, gender, disability and other forms of discrimination has been eliminated completely.
  • Courts are kept very busy with continuous labour disputes based on poor working conditions and other forms of unfair labour practices.
  • Child labour, abuse of women and lack of opportunity for people with disabilities still occur in many parts of the world.
  • While advances in safety have been made, accidents still occur resulting in injuries and loss of life. Notwithstanding this progress, it is now a reality that more workers die from poor health (caused by poor lifestyle, poverty, and diseases) than from injuries at work.
  • Skills and talent shortages are perpetuated all over the world through lack of access to education and development opportunities, making it difficult for many employees to realise their full potential.
  • The explosion in executive pay over the last decade exacerbates pay gaps between the highest and lowest earners in society.
  • World-wide, the level of unionisation is decreasing, and this mean that protection and advancement of workers’ rights needs to be handled differently.
  • Although significant progress has been made regarding gender equity, flexible work practices appear to be the exception rather than the norm and an appropriate work-life balance is often not achieved.
  • The recent trend toward indigenisation in certain countries could limit opportunities for expatriates and fuel xenophobia, especially in the light of the increased globalisation of workforces and workplaces everywhere.
  • Youth unemployment has risen in many parts of the world, and if not addressed will widen the gap between the employed and the unemployed, thereby threatening political stability in many countries.

But what exactly should employers do to show their commitment to worker rights and empowerment? The SA Board for People Practices proposes the following key actions:

  1. Identify factors which will help to create a people-driven organisation culture where each employee can realise his or her potential. If people really are your most important asset, treat them as such.
  2. Ensure compliance to international labour codes, such as the labour standards of the International Labor Organization, in all countries where you do business.
  3. Review all HR and other policies in your organisation to ensure compliance to all labour laws, codes and standards. Best employers are already proud to announce that they exceed the minimum labour standards.
  4. Assess your company’s contribution to the socio-economic landscape, the lives of workers, and the communities in which you operate.
  5. Create a personal development plan for all employees. Show them how they can create a career and better themselves.
  6. Review the gap between the highest and lowest earners and ensure fair and market-related salaries where possible. Consider how equitable the profit sharing in the business is and think about how to introduce profit and productivity schemes.
  7. Eliminate all forms of direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace.
  8. Invest in skills development as the major source of worker empowerment.
  9. Apply the HR Management System Standard of South Africa developed by SABPP, it helps you to get the focus on leveraging work and workers for optimum productivity.
  10. Involve workers in the process of creating sustainable organisations, not only for our own organisational growth, but to sustain the earth for future generations.

“He who works diligently need never despair; for all things are accomplished by diligence and labour.” Meander

Yes, we should celebrate workers’ day, not only today, but every day. We need to acknowledge that worker rights have to be balanced with responsibilities.  As Menander stated:  “He who works diligently need never despair; for all things are accomplished by diligence and labour.” Stronger employer-employee collaboration is needed to assist workers and companies in dealing with economic challenges.  A more mature employer and employee are needed in the modern work environment. Likewise, both parties need to realise that they have a wider more all-encompassing role to play, and that is to contribute to worker empowerment, socio-economic development and sustainability. Let us continue to advance worker empowerment to grow people, economies and nations.


This article was written by Marius Meyer, CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP).  For more information, you can follow SABPP on twitter @SABPP1 or visit their website on


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