JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – The apparent opting out of labour union membership in South Africa amid a wave of wildcat strikes, could mark a rise in employee terminations, should companies lose confidence in collective bargaining, law firm Routledge Modise employment director Prince Mafojane has said.
“The spate of unprotected worker strikes not aligned to any specific trade union is forcing employers or companies to terminate employment with such workers, costing both companies and employees the opportunity to find resolution through collective bargaining instead,” he noted.
Over the last 16 months, South Africa had been wracked by strike action, particularly in its mining sector, with the National Treasury indicating in its 2013 Budget that the total value of mining production lost owing to strikes and stoppages in 2012 had amounted to R15.3-billion.
Mofajane told Mining Weekly Online on Wednesday that there was a perception among many workers that their unions “did not have their backs”, as they were more preoccupied with politics than with workplace issues.
“When you look at the tripartite alliance –the African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party – we have seen more space being created within the alliance for Cosatu to engage at high policy level. What has come with this type of engagement, is that there has been a considerable neglect of ‘bread and butter’ issues.
“The Marikana massacre took place while the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was preoccupied with a succession debate in the lead-up to Mangaung. There was a feeling, certainly among the majority of workers in the platinum belt, that the NUM had abandoned them,” Mafojane indicated.
He added that the current tough global economic circumstances were not making matters easier, “Although employers may argue that some of the increases secured during wage negotiations are above inflation, the reality is that in rand terms, because of the economic crisis, people are just not [making ends meet]. This leads to the perception among workers that instead of fighting for them, unions are becoming a constraint to their ability to earn more money.”
The recessionary environment of recent years had seen workers faced with increasing costs, which was also widely regarded as one of the catalysts to workers opting out of union membership.
Mafojane noted that the trend where employment termination was a first port of call, posed many risks to companies, as the training and hiring of new staff was costly and ultimately impacted on business operations.
Meanwhile, he highlighted that, although the future of bargaining councils was murky at present, the Free Market Foundation's constitutional challenge, announced in March, against a section of South Africa’s Labour Relations Act on the basis that the extension of bargaining council agreements to nonparties impinged on individual rights – could possibly result in employer rights being strengthened.
“Depending on how it goes, you might see the unions being weakened. But, my view is that the weakening of the unions, particularly in regards to issues of collective bargaining and the extension of agreements to nonparties, might lead to the mushrooming of entities within the workplace which are not bound by any central bargaining system. I think a decision must be made to determine if this would be beneficial,” Mafojane stated.
He added that this “mushrooming” could precede a disastrous era in collective bargaining characterised by violence and where there were many competing unions and no central accord binding the parties and the nonparties.
Mafojane suggested that the Department of Labour’s announcement that it would hold a labour relations indaba to convene government, business and labour later this year, could assist in preventing such a situation.
He said the indaba would allow parties to review South Africa’s labour relations regime and determine whether it was still relevant in its current form and what changes could be made. The indaba could also perhaps lead to the development of an improved or a new labour accord.
“I think government and business would come to the table, but in terms of labour, this will be really contingent upon the legitimacy and relevance of the unions in the eyes of their members…such an indaba will be an exercise in futility if the unions cannot secure the buy-in of their members into its outcomes, so the unions have a lot of work to do to regain the trust of their members,” Mafojane said.