Training: BUA – Are learnerships helping or hindering workers?

That is the question that these two articles attempt to debate. Dinga Sikwebu, relying on interviews with a number of shop stewards concludes that learnerships are not in workers' interests. Malebo Mogopodi counters outlining the merits of the new system.

Learnerships: cheap labour through the backdoor?

The issue of learnerships was a big debate at Numsa's bargaining conference this year. Dinga Sikwebu spoke to delegates to establish what in the learnership system is niggling labour.

Labour has an ambivalent attitude to learnerships. While the new training system promises workers opportunities, there is fear that learnerships may provide a door for employers to introduce cheap labour and undercut permanent employees. “Learnerships have an ideological undertone of flexibility.

They can prove to be worse than the monster of labour brokers”, says John Thompson shopsteward and Numsa national treasurer, Omar Gire. For Gire, learnerships provide employers with a golden opportunity to reduce labour costs. “Engaging workers who will do exactly the same work as permanent employees at R120 a week is cheap for employers”, says Gire.

He also points to the fact that learners will have none of the normal benefits and will have to leave employment when the learnership agreement expires. Echoing Gire's fears were other shopstewards at the bargaining conference. “The learnership programme is a vacancy-driven system. Employers are not obliged to take on learners after they complete training.

Even employed workers who participate in learnerships would have to go back to their old jobs if there are no vacancies”, says Delta shopsteward and Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Education and Training Authority (Merseta) Eastern Cape vice-chairperson, Saliem Dollie. It is because of these concerns that Numsa's bargaining conference resolved that “the union will fight for learnerships that lead to guaranteed employment”.

Growth and Development Summit Labour's delegation at the Growth and Development Summit (GDS) was of the same mind. Aware of potential threats that learnerships posed, the delegation insisted on the inclusion in the agreement on learnerships of a clause stating that “learnerships should not displace workers, be used as a source of cheap labour, replace workers during industrial action, or lead to lowering of employment standards”.

To address potential abuse of learnerships by employers, the GDS agreed that the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) “will develop mechanisms to monitor the extent of the problem”.

The GDS recognised the right of workers in such situations to declare disputes. Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas) “shall be justified in refusing to register further learnerships agreements coming from companies that abuse the system”.

But there are other concerns about learnerships that stretch beyond the potential displacement of permanent workers. There is the argument that learnerships will lead to the deskilling of artisans. “If a learner does artisan's work, the question is what will his or her rate of pay be, now that there is no grading system worked out for learnerships?” asks Gire.

For him it is obvious that payment will be less than that of an artisan. “This will mark the end of the artisan system”.

There is also the concern about the time that it will take for workers to obtain a qualification through the learnership system. “Do not be fooled by people who say learnerships will be quicker than apprenticeships.

The old Artisan Training and Recognition Agreement for the Metal Industry (Atrami) may prove quicker than the ‘do-it-at-your-pace' approach of learnerships”, says Gire. According to Merseta Kwa-Zulu Natal regional chairperson and Defy shopsteward Vinod Singh “a specific learnership requires a long time before a qualification is obtained; at least 1 200 hours of learning”.

Both Dollie and Singh feel that as a union we should focus on apprenticeship and skills programmes. “Learnerships are not about recognition of existing skills. They are about career pathing”. For the two shopstewards, “many of our members cannot participate in learnerships as the requirement for the system is ABET Level 4 or a Std 7 equivalent”.

For workers who have no numeracy and literacy skills, the “best bet is Section 28 of the Manpower Act which allows workers who can demonstrate ability to perform certain skill to apply for a trade test without being bothered about papers and certificates”. How employers are to respond to this shift in emphasis is something to be seen.


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