Glitches in online system adding to NPOs’ woes

The department of labour earlier announced that it will name and shame employers who fail to comply with the national minimum wage (NMW), yet its own systems are found lacking. A coalition of non-profit organisations ranging from shelters for abused women to organisations providing post-rape and other related care and residential facilities for older persons and people with disabilities raised concerns in a letter to the minister of labour Mildred Oliphant about problems they are experiencing with the online exemption system.

Many NPOs in the welfare sector face severe funding challenges that makes it difficult to comply with the NMW. When concerns were raised during the public participation process in Parliament that the NMW may cripple smaller NPO’s in the welfare sector, the department held the exemption process as a measure, albeit temporary, to address this. According to the National Minimum Wage Act which came into effect on 1 January this year, employers can apply for exemption from the national minimum wage. Now, however, various NPOs across the country have trouble accessing the online exemption system. The Shukumisa Coalition representing staff at over 2000 NPOs in a letter to the minister said many NPOs countrywide are unable to apply for exemption due to “incompatibilities between the Department of Labour and Department of Social Development’s IT systems”. “This matter needs to be attended to urgently, and constitutes a crisis for NPOs and service beneficiaries,” the letter reads. The coalition also warned the minister that this may have dire consequences for providing ongoing services to those in need.

Chief director of labour relations in the department Thembinkosi Mkalipi acknowledged the challenges with the system and said the issues are being attended to. According to Mkalipi the department thus far received about 16 applications from NPOs. He explained: “The difficulty however was that when they enter their NPO number, they need to add the word ‘NPO’ at the end.” He said the system will now be changed to explain this. Mkalipi said since the Department of Labour’s integrated central database (ICD) is not interfaced with the IT system at the Department of Social Development, the NPO data will have to be uploaded manually to the ICD.

Despite these assurances the coalition notes the situation causes fear among organisations that they will be fined or labelled non-compliant by departments that subsidise them and that services to the most vulnerable will thus be at risk. These NPOs also need copies of their exemption applications to consult with their staff. According to the coalition many of these NPOs have already been summoned to the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Director of PE Mental Health Limeez Arendse told Parlybeat the organisation has been trying since January to access the online system to no avail. “When we tried in January the website could not recognise our NPO number. We are now being assisted by an employer’s organisation, but the system still remains dysfunctional.” Coordinator for Cheshire Homes in the Eastern Cape Hillary Bolton was more fortunate. Cheshire homes provide residential facilities and special day-care for people with disabilities.  Bolton told Parlybeat after numerous failed attempts to access the online exemption system, she finally managed to submit her application albeit after more than a month of trying. “At first the system would not accept our NPO number so one could just get up to a certain point and then had to give up. It was quite tedious.” Bolton said NPOs’ struggles are much bigger than just getting an exemption. “An exemption only gives us a 10% reduction. It is hardly the solution to our funding issues. In our case we will need R34 000 per month for one home to comply with minimum wage. We only get 23% of what we need from the Department of Social Development and the rest we must fundraise ourselves. This (NMW) poses an enormous challenge for NPOs like us given our funding problems. People deserve a minimum wage but if we are to provide these services in partnership with the government, we must be funded properly.”

Finance minister Tito Mboweni recently in his budget speech announced additional funds of R1 billion to the health budget to raise the wages of community healthcare workers in line with the minimum wage of R3500.  Shukumisa welcomed this in a statement but voiced their disappointment over the lack of a similar commitment for social welfare services that according to them are seriously underfunded.

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