South Africa has 17 million economically active people but a high unemployment rate of 30 percent in 2000. The unemployment problem is mainly related to structural factors, such as the high rate of population growth and the existence of large sectors of the economy that are poorly developed. The new government has pledged to reduce inequality in the job market by means of affirmative action in favor of non-whites, the disabled, and women. It has begun with a vigorous program of affirmative action in the public sector. A strong influx of illegal aliens from neighboring countries, particularly since 1990, has added to the rapid growth rate of the domestic population and the high unemployment rate. According to news reports, the ranks of squatters and criminals have been swelled by illegal aliens.
Affirmative action policies, high tax rates, and the rising crime rate have all helped to drive more highly skilled workers out of the country. The net loss of economically active persons in professional, technical, and managerial positions is very disturbing. Exact figures are difficult to determine, however, because many South Africans leave the country permanently without stating it clearly.
Both governments elected since 1994 have taken steps to secure and protect the rights of workers, especially black workers, in the South African economy. Among the rights listed in the Bill of Rights in the 1996 constitution were provisions guaranteeing workers the right to fair labor practices, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, and other labor friendly practices. Since that time, the government has created a number of laws friendly to workers, including a Labor Relations Act (which sets parameters for workplace bargaining and entrenches the right to strike); the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (which prescribes the maximum number of hours in a work week, leave, and overtime pay provisions, etc.); the Employment Equity Act (which sets out to eliminate discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender, race, or disability); and the Skills Development Act (which aims to improve the general skills level throughout industry).
According to the U.S. Department of State Country Commercial Guide for FY2000: South Africa, "In 1997 there were 3.4 million union members in South Africa, or nearly 35 percent of the economically active population" (with the latter using a lower figure of 9.8 million workers used by the International Labor Organization). "The largest labor federation, the 1.8 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), is in a formal alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP)." Many union leaders play a prominent role in government, contributing to the generally labor friendly reputation of the government. Unions have used strike threats to persuade employers to pay higher wages, and unions are particularly strong in the mining and industrial sectors. However, the recent tendency of the government to favor free market solutions to economic problems has led to tensions with organized labor.