In Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the protagonist – Mr. Willy Wonka, an eccentric confectionery entrepreneur dismisses an entire workforce and closes his factory as a result of disloyal employees.
Thousands of people lose their jobs and the once bustling enterprise falls silent.
But Mr Wonka exacts sweet retribution by travelling to a fabled land and hiring dedicated pygmy automatons called Oompa-Loompas.
The Oompa Loompas are paid their wages in chocolate and have none of the shortcomings of humans.
As a result Mr Wonka rebuilds his empire and spends his days inventing delectable, unique sweet creations.
Dahl, ever the master of paradox, softens his assault on the shortcomings of human employees by showing Willy Wonka to be a lonely, if talented genius, who desperately seeks the connection of people and kinship.
This children’s story, written half-a-century ago when automation and mechanisation were seldom considered over human effort, provides the stark message of our times.
An employee, replete with the attributes of creativity, emotion, cognition and empathy is an individual, yet most of the work they carry out in exchange for remuneration is a product.
In free economies over the past century, the universal failure of worker rights’ movements and labour unions has been to ignore this basic axiom.
In South Arica, we have a unique set of circumstances.
The trade union movement is part of the current ANC regime. The separation of legislative pragmatism – what workers want from what they need has been blurred.
Legislators ignore the fact that there is a competitive environment in the workplace beyond the productivity and creativity of people.
They are blind to the reality that a machine can outwork, out-produce (and even outsmart) a human being. The response of voters in most democratic societies has been to vote for regulated minimum wages, more protection, equality rights and stringent employer obligations.
What these voters fail to realise is that they have also voted away their basic economic liberties. Freedom to negotiate individually has been usurped casinos online by administered, collective negotiation.
One can legislate the cost of employment, but you cannot legislate the value of employment.
The result has been the progressive obsolescence of the employee.
In short, once widely regarded as a company’s greatest asset, employees are increasingly viewed by employers as a contingent liability.
Loane Sharp, the eminent South African labour economist, suggests that repealing South African employment legislation, such as the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act, will serve to decrease unemployment.
He is not alone.
Economists base this view on the concept of rational self-interest – that once the direct impediments to flexible labour hiring and firing are removed, a spontaneous font of job opportunities will surface.
But economists and academics are rarely in the firing line of an angry mob, acting in the frenzied unison of a scorched earth mission. They do not experience the status quo – the vandalism, terror and wanton destruction of an unprotected strike. They do not consider the fickleness of the human collective.
It is not solely about blue-collar or unskilled workers.
An educated or senior employee will seldom refrain from using the full might of labour protest and protection if necessary. The difference is purely one of numbers and stealth – an individual impulsiveness versus a collective mob culture.
Whether in the hallowed halls of academia or the murderous Marikana mount, human nature looms large.
In striking public servants, or in the solidarity shown by commandeering and damaging valuable equipment at an iron ore mine, the common thread is human nature.
From idyllic Cape farms, where workers and nearby townsfolk allegedly collaborate in destroying crops and farming assets, to deep level mines where on a cooperative whim, a labour force halts production, the common thread is human nature.
In companies where executives spend the majority of their time in labour and employee related issues, union negotiations, collective wage bargaining councils or labour litigation, shareholders are demanding that management manage the business, not human nature.
Labour legislation is only one of the deterrents to hiring people.
In South Africa’s socio-industrial economy, most statutes relate to humans. Health and safety, acceptable conduct, communalism, ethics or values all relate to people and human nature. These statutes have equal, and sometimes a greater effect on reducing staff numbers.
From the small business facing unsustainable compliance costs to the industrialist facing fear, potential sabotaged machinery, damaged vehicles or a warehouse burnt to the ground in an orgy of unrequited rage, the future vision is one without the vices of human nature.
For Mr. Willy Wonka, the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a happy ending. He finds a family with whom he can bond and belong. But he forever lost the habit of employing humans.
Will formal employment become progressively obsolete?
The calls for ‘socially-responsible entrepreneurs’ and a business culture centred on people and employees” aspirations, is ludicrous.
For business not to have been largely employee-centred would have been the death of the industrial age.
Business is hardly blameless – it cannot lay claim to having placed the interests of employees and communities above profits.
But in comparison to past government policy and current legislative ideology, business comes out as almost saintly. It is the all-encompassing State and their legions who have consigned millions to the jobless queues.
And yet, the calls remain for government to provide the unemployment solution.
There is a growing commercial and voter sector that is beginning to question the relevance of government in the lives and livelihoods of people.
In the case of the challenges of unemployment, overwhelming evidence shows that government is not the solution, government is the problem.
In South Africa, I fear the commercial sector has lost both the habit and desire of employing humans too.