Chris Wilkins, CEO of DVT

Labour brokering, a form of outsourcing in which companies contract labour brokers to provide them with casual labour, is a term that elicits emotionally charged responses more often than logical debate. Chris Wilkins, CEO of software development company DVT, says it’s time to remove emotion from the discussion and focus on promoting fairness across the workplace.

Labour union Cosatu has branded the practice as “modern-day slavery” and it’s become a political hot potato because it implies commercial abuse. But what constitutes commercial abuse is nebulous and not easy to define, which is why an outright banning of the practice does not make business sense in South Africa.

It is also extremely important to remember, at all times, exactly what the objective is when banning labour brokering. It is easy to focus on ‘ban labour brokering’ as an outcome or an argument. This really does miss the point. The outcome is to remove highly abusive employer/employee relationships, and perhaps it is worth mentioning that this abusive relationship can exist either way.

Labour brokering could initially be categorised in terms of who is asking for it – the employer or the employee. If the employee asks for it, it cannot be commercial abuse by the employer. If the employer asks for it, it might be an abusive relationship, but it might not. What happens if the employer asks for it, but has a long line of employees ready sign up on a labour brokering contract? Is that desperation, or choice, in a tough and competitive world? Nothing comes easy for anyone working for a living. Nothing should come easy. Because if it does, it makes it really, really tough for someone else, somewhere else.

So once we have categorised an employment contract by ‘employee requested’ or ‘employee requested’ we have simply removed a percentage of labour brokering activity from the ‘abusive’ category. Meaning we can narrow down our search for fairness and responsible behaviour.  After that, any number of concepts can be used for categorisation purposes.

Consider commercially cyclical industries as another example. If labour is used to pick millions of tons of fruit in the picking season, surely this constitutes legitimate cyclical commercial needs. It would be crazy to employ fruit-pickers all year round. What on earth would they do? And don’t think for a moment there is something to do for all those hundreds or thousands of workers. There isn’t.

After that, the same simple process of categorising legitimate behaviour, and subsequent elimination, can be followed until we have reached our goal – finding abusive labour brokering or employment relationships.

Without this analysis, in detail, it would be naïve in the extreme to impose an outright ban on labour brokering. It would also have a net effect of making South Africa expensive, uncompetitive, and leaving millions of people without any opportunity at all to find work.