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Is the Employment Equity Act still relevant today?

The purpose of the Employment Equity Act (EEA) of 1998 is essentially to eliminate unfair discrimination and achieve equality in the workplace. But is the Act still necessary in today’s workplace, considering it has already existed for 20 years?  And if necessary, what are you doing in your organisation to comply with and support the purpose of the Act?

 

CRITICISM AND OPPOSING VIEWS

In my experience as an HR Consultant and Training Facilitator, concepts such as Employment Equity, equality, transformation, and unfair discrimination in the workplace are met with either strong support or strong resistance.  On the one side, I find that many people feel transformation has not been rapid and progressive enough.  Strong opinions often exist amongst this group that government and society have not done enough to educate and upskill previously disadvantaged groups, and to transform the workplace by providing more employment opportunities for such groups, especially at higher levels.

Then there is the opposite view, where many people feel that that the Employment Equity Act has existed for long enough –  that 20 years has been long enough to address the disadvantages of the past and to create a level playing field in the workplace.

It is evident that Employment Equity is a sensitive subject.  Some go as far as to claim that the calibre of skills within organisations suffer as a result of the Employment Equity Act – that you cannot appoint the most suitable person for the job as you are restricted by the Act.  Some feel it’s a form of reverse discrimination against minority groups, including post-1994 Born Frees.

There are many previously disadvantaged people who argue that they choose to be appointed on merit, based on their skills and ability to do the job, and not due to them belonging to a specific race or gender group.  Many feel that regardless of being African, Colored, Indian, Female or Disabled, they don’t want to be labelled ‘previously disadvantaged’, or that they were in fact nothistorically disadvantaged.

The employment of females in the workplace in a stereotypically male dominated environment (or vice versa) is also a sensitive topic, with debates following about poor job-person match and high labour turnover. Some examples include females in Artisan jobs or males in secretarial jobs. Although one must be careful of labels and stereotypes, one must also be aware of the typical impact on retention in the workplace, when forcing people into jobs simply to achieve the correct ‘numbers’.

Another point of criticism is that the Act potentially causes division in the workplace.  The Act requires numerical target setting and reporting, based on race and gender groups.   Employees have to constantly classify themselves by race and gender. Employment and development decisions are made based on your race or gender group.  This constant focus on how we are different from one another may divide people, rather than creating harmony and unity in the workplace.

So, is the Employment Equity Act still relevant today considering such views and criticism?  Let us consider this question against some facts.

WHAT DO THE STATISTICS SAY?

Equality also requires that demographics in each occupational level of your organisation to be representative of the EAP (Economic Active Population).  In South Africa, the EAP (those between 16 and 64 who are actively working or wishing to work) are as follows:

NATIONAL EAP   NATIONAL EAP
RACE % GENDER %
African 78 Male 55
Coloured 10 Female 45
White 9    
Indian 3    

If you consider the demographics of your workforce at each level in the organisation, is it representative of this EAP? In most organisations, as per the Employment Equity Commission Report, Whites are over-represented at higher levels while other groups, especially Africans, are under-represented at higher levels.  The exact opposite is usually the case at lower levels, where Whites are usually under-represented and Africans over-represented.

In a similar fashion, about 55% of the EAP are males, and about 45% females.  How do the demographics at each level in your organisation compare? Most Companies still have males over-represented at higher levels and females under-represented.

So, if there are 45% economically active females, is it not reasonable and fair that approximately 45% of job opportunities should be occupied by them.    Similarly, if there are approximately 78% of economically active Africans in the workplace, surely it would be unfair if they only occupied a small percentage of all jobs, or only lower level jobs?

Here are some statistics from the 17thCommission for Employment Equity Annual Report 2016-2017.  The EAP (which is the target we aim for) is compared with a summary of actuals as reported by Companies during the Employment Equity reporting period:

Race/ Gender EAP (Target) Top Management Senior Management Professional Qualified Skilled Semi-Skilled Unskilled
African 78 14.4 22.1 41.5 60.2 76.1 83.2
Coloured 10 4.9 7.7 9.7 11.5 12.3 11.4
White 9 68.5 58.1 37.5 20.8 6.2 1.2
Indian 3 8.9 10.6 8.5 5.8 3.1 0.8
Foreigner 3.4 1.4 2.8 1.8 2.3 3.4
Male 55 78 66.7 54.4 54 57.2 59.3
Female 45 22 33.3 45.6 46 42.8 40.7

In many South African organisations, the workplace demographics do not yet reflect the Economic Active Population.  It is evident that we still have some work to do to ensure we level the playing field by undoing the effects of unfair discrimination of the past and ensuring equal work opportunities for all people of South Africa.

WHAT MUST CHANGE?

The achievement of Employment Equity and elimination of unfair discrimination is a process,and is largely influenced by our political and socio-economic conditions. Since 1994, much hope has been created in our country that transformation will happen and that equal opportunities will exist in education and employment, yet progress is slow. There are so many factors that influence transformation in the workplace.  One such component is skills upliftment.

If we can uplift skills of the majority of our Economic Active Population we would be able to slowly but surely transform the workplace.  Expectations were created of transformation after 1994.  However, our government has unfortunately created little opportunity to address unemployment levels.   As a result, a large part of our population remains unemployed and do not have sufficient funds to pay for their own education and skills development. A huge responsibility therefore rests on the shoulders of Companies to try and make a difference in terms of skills upliftment, which will assist in transformation in the workplace.

Wherever possible Companies are therefore encouraged to invest in people development.  Invest in your current staff and invest in people that don’t currently work for you and cannot afford to pay for their own education.  Furthermore, if you as an employee can afford it, invest in the development of others by for instance paying for your domestic worker’s education, or his/her children’s education.   Skills upliftment of our nation will make South Africa a better place.

People should also be having more discussions around equity and diversity.  People should get to know one another and understand how they view the world, and why. Difficult conversations around the topics should be facilitated to ensure that we leverage the benefits of diversity and inclusion.  Management and leaders should be educated in Employment Equity and Diversity so that Company cultures are changed to embrace diversity, and not avoid the topic.

Furthermore, the Employment Equity Commission indicated in its last report, that it may be looking at developing sectoral targets. This would be a huge step towards ensuring more realistic industry targets in some sectors.

In my view the Employment Equity Act is still relevant, despite criticism and slow progress.  It still facilitates change towards achieving equity (albeit slowly) in difficult political and socio-economic circumstances.  The Employment Equity, B-BBEE and Skills Development Acts are closely connected and support one another in this transformation process.  The B-BBEE Act has become an instrumental driver of Employment Equity, through its Skills Development and Management Control elements, and the recent changes in B-BBEE Codes have highlighted to what extremes Companies will go to ensure compliance when business continuity is at risk.   Therefore, similar stricter enforcement or penalties may be what it would take in order to get Companies to take Employment Equity as seriously as they take B-BBEE.

Therefore, to improve Employment Equity progress:

  • Be generous in Skills Development. Bursaries, learnerships and internships are all great examples of people development opportunities which can provide skilled people for future employment.
  • Take the risk and get out of your comfort zone. There are great, skilled people out there from all race and gender groups.  Forget about the stereotypes and give someone an employment opportunity.
  • Take responsibility to help integrate newly appointed staff, to expedite easy integration and fit into the organisation.
  • Encourage discussions and train all your staff in Employment Equity and Diversity, especially your leadership group. Don’t avoid the topic – facilitate healthy discussions on the subject.
  • Focus on how we as people are similar to one another, rather than on our differences. Create a culture of inclusion and unity.
  • Develop longer term Employment Equity Plans (5 years as opposed to 1 year) to ensure you commit to a progressive plan.
  • When you recruit people that are significantly under-represented in certain jobs or levels, consider large scale recruitment efforts where operationally and financially feasible (for example, appoint 5 female artisans rather than just one to assist with a sense of belongingness and increased retention levels).

In my view, there is still place for legislation such as the Employment Equity Act to help bring about equality in the workplace, or the change won’t happen in many organisations.  However, Companies and individuals need to take action to accelerate the change so that workplace equity can become the ’new normal’.

Rene de Waal

Bruniquel & Associates (Pty) Ltd.

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