Pale, male, and unemployable?

South Africa’s new policy environment has created the impression in some quarters that a form of reverse racism now applies in employment practice, with white males fast becoming a threatened minority.

Is this a crude over-simplification or is it the practical reality?

The “pale male” can expect to be adversely affected in the employment stakes by the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Equity Act, according to The Focus Group, the Forest Town-based consultancy that provides human resources expertise to some of South Africa’s leading companies.

However, whether this category of applicants becomes a group of losers or winners is entirely up to the individuals concerned.

Says Gavin Sher, director of The Focus Group: “The reality in the old South Africa was that blacks, women and the disabled had to work harder and be better than their white male counterparts if they were to make comparable progress.

“Today’s affirmative action beneficiaries are blacks, Indians, coloureds, white females and the disabled. Positive discrimination in their favour is considered fair. Negative impact on white males is not considered unfair and is therefore not actionable at law under industrial relations legislation.

“It is up to white men to react like a previous generation of achievers among women and blacks and prove their worth. New legislation can either be an excuse for failure or a spur to superior performance. Real winners will seek higher qualifications and embark on constant self-development. A high level of relevant skill is the best defence against discrimination.”

Discrimination works in favour of affirmative action groups in situations where qualifications, experience and skills are on a par. If a “pale male” scores in these areas, he will still win the promotion or land the job.

For young white men, the challenge is to obtain qualifications in areas where there is a skills shortage. Areas experiencing a shortage of skills include technical or specialist qualifications. If you need to upskill, consider taking a sales job which allows you flexibility along with the advantage of being able to earn commission. Freed up time can be dedicated to part-time studies, allowing for a change in your career and focus.

The Employment Equity Act makes it clear that the intention is to ensure a truer reflection of national demographics in the workplace, but not by fostering unwarranted promotion of unqualified or under-qualified people from previously disadvantaged groups.

Though “pale males” may feel their negotiating position vis a vis employers has been weakened, they should not feel compelled to put up with conditions of employment which are inferior to those expected of other groups.

The Focus Group points out that no employer may contract on a basis that is inferior to that laid down by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (covering issues such as minimum periods of notice, annual leave and sick leave and overtime rates).

Nor is it permissable to discriminate on the grounds of race (except for positive discrimination favouring previously disadvantaged groups), gender, age, religion and sexual orientation.

Says Gavin Sher: “These constitutional guarantees sometimes lead to the misapprehension that an employer has no right to ask questions relating to these issues. This is not the case. Such information may be necessary – for the benefits package, for instance.

“The law forbids the use of this information in a way that would prejudice the individual, but there is nothing unlawful in asking for this information. When filling in an application form it is usually best to complete every question. Prepare yourself thoroughly so you can answer all likely questions.”

It would be unlawful to require inappropriate qualifications for a position in order to exclude certain race groups (asking for a C.A. [S.A.] qualification for a job as a bus driver, for instance). Age and gender might be relevant in view of a job’s requirements. However, it would be wrong to use someone’s age to disqualify them from a job on a call centre, say.

Says Sher: “It is best to take a commonsense approach. It does you no good to get the image of someone who is ‘shirty’ on legal issues. This does not mean you should not read carefully any contract of employment. Read and re-read it. Make sure you understand it before signing it.”

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