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To pay or not to pay...

The electrifying question of whether or not employees must be paid during load-shedding continues to have an insidious effect on the economy.
James Siddall
James Siddall
Did you know that the great South African power crisis is all a hoax? Really. I recently learnt that Eskom was spuriously claiming that electricity demand had way outstripped supply and had instituted load-shedding in order to secure massive government funding, while foisting power-price hikes on the unsuspecting public.

Needless to say, it's just a theory - like the premise that the moon-landings never happened and were actually shot in elaborate Hollywood studios - but it does provide an insight into the fascinating human ability to cook up conspiracy theories.

Load-shedding - a way of life

But the fact is, load-shedding, or power-cuts, if you want to ditch the euphemism, seem set to be integral part of South African life for, at the very least, the next five or more years.

And, of course, they raise more questions than we possibly have space here. Just some of the burning ones include: What will SA's economic growth rate contract to? Answers seem to vary between a relatively rosy 4% and an abysmal 2%, but then economics was never a precise science.

Another one is: Is it now downright irresponsible to encourage energy-intensive foreign investment, and should investors - and they'll find this particularly hilarious - be told to please go away and come back once the power is working properly?

Pay up

Then of course there's the question of whether or not staff should be paid during power outages, and according to business chiefs, including Greville Howard, CEO of the Durban-based IRS (Industrial Relations Specialists), it's a "highly complex issue".

But the short, basic answer - which will probably delight employees but less so employers - is yes, workers must be paid if they're willing to work but can't, for whatever reason, including power outages. Of course, in a converse situation, such as a strike, where the employee is patently not tendering his services or offering to work, then the no-work no-pay rule can be implemented.

A word of law

To get a bit more technical, according to Labour-wise, an online labour relations service: "The employment contract is a reciprocal service contract which is governed by the common law, and supplemented by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997, in terms of which contract the employee agrees to work for the employer and the employer agrees to pay the employee a specified remuneration for the work. The employer's obligation to pay is subject to the employee doing the work.

"Where the employee in fact offers to do the work (tender service) and the employer does not want the employee to work or cannot provide the employee with the work (for whatever reason) the employer must still pay the employee..."

More bad news for employers is that should they wish to make up lost production at the end of the work day, they are obliged to pay overtime rates, as is the case for any work outside normal hours.

Job shedding

But the great power crisis hardly leaves employees immune. In one high-profile example of what threatens to be a series of impending catastrophes, mining houses look set to shed thousands of jobs.

Gold Fields - the world's fourth-largest gold producer - has already said that as a result of the power deficit, it would cut back its labour force by about 7,000 members. And bear in mind that each worker is said to support around six individuals.

Naturally, it's not only the mining houses who face bleak times, nor is it the only industry likely to shed jobs should power cuts continue.

Even waitrons - to use that hideously asexual, politically correct term - are not unaffected by load-shedding. When a restaurant or coffee bar is forced to run at a fraction of its capacity, staff may still get their meagre hourly wage, but their tips are dramatically reduced.

Workers don't carry the burden?

So while Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven has boldly said that workers should not carry the burden of load-shedding, and while employers are obliged to pay them - although rumours of casual labourers being sent home unremunerated have surfaced - it appears unlikely that this will happen.

"The power crisis really is a lose-lose situation," opines Greville Howard. "In the short-term business owners suffer by having to pay employees for work not done, and in the long-term employees look likely to suffer as those some businesses are forced to retrench, or even close."

About James Siddall

James Siddall is a media consultant and journalist, writing for titles such as The Weekender, Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune. Industrial Relations Specialists (IRS), which specialises in outsourcing, industrial relations, human resources, contract cleaning and security solutions, is one of his corporate clients. James can be emailed at az.oc.noci@lladdis.

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