Answer to a question from a reader

We work long hours and below minimum wage. What can we do?

The short answer

You cannot be dismissed for insisting on your rights under the law.

The whole question

I work for a manufacturing company. We work 11-hour day shifts and 13 hour night shifts. Our boss pays operators R11 per hour. If you complain to him he will fire you. We don't know what to do or who to report this to you. We are aware that the president introduced minimum wages this year, but our company does not pay the minimum wage.

Please help my fellow workers and me.

The long answer

The Constitution of South Africa says everyone must be treated with dignity. You don’t say what the company manufactures, so we don’t know whether your industry is covered by a bargaining council agreement or not, but in any case you are covered by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

That means your hours of work, rest periods, overtime, and night shift work are all laid down by law. For example, although you can agree in writing to work up to 12 hours a day without receiving overtime pay, you can’t be forced to work more than 45 ordinary hours a week in total, more than ten overtime hours, more than five days a week.

If you are working night shift (between 6pm and 6am), you must either be paid an allowance or have your working hours reduced, and transport must be available.

You have a right to a 60 minute break after working for five hours, unless you agree with your boss in writing that it can be reduced to 30 minutes.

You are covered by the minimum wage, which is R20.00 an hour. But your boss can apply for an exemption with the National Minimum Wage Exemption System on the basis of making a loss, or of not earning more than 6% annually on his assets. If the exemption is granted, the minimum wage is reduced to R18.00 an hour. If he gets the exemption, he has to give you a copy of the exemption, and also display it in the factory.

You cannot be dismissed for insisting on your rights under the law. You are protected under the Labour Relations Act (LRA) from being dismissed for exercising your rights. If you are fired for complaining about your rights being denied, that is an “automatically unfair dismissal” under the LRA (Section 187(1)(d), and your boss will be forced to reinstate you or pay up to 24 months compensation. The same applies if he dismisses you for joining a trade union, which is a basic worker’s right.

Which brings me to the most important point: to change your bosses’ attitude towards his workers, you need to organise yourselves and stand together. If he knows you stand together on your rights, he will be far less likely to treat you badly. If there is a union in your industry, join it.

In the first place, you can approach the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) and report what is happening at your workplace. You can contact them here: 0861 16 16 16. Email:

Good luck and get organised!

Answered on Jan. 30, 2019, 11:26 a.m.

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Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.