by Piet Coetzer

Labour dispensation urgently needs review

The side effects of unofficial strikes and deals

Unfair labour laws
Labour law.JPG

South Africa’s collective bargaining system is under threat, the National Union of Mine workers (NUM) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said in a statement last week. They blamed employers for their 'grave error' in making settlements outside official bargaining structures. The growing crisis in the country’s formal labour relations dispensation is, however, deeper and more complicated than just that.

Although there can be no doubt that the present pressure on existing remuneration agreements was triggered by the apparently independent deal struck at the Lonmin mine after the Marikana tragedy in which 46 people lost their lives, the roots of the crisis lie further back and are wider than this single incident. There is plenty of evidence that the dispensation under the Labour Relations Act (LRA) of 1995 have not kept up with a changing labour environment

NUM and Cosatu, with the support of the South African Communist Party (SACP), also announced plans last week to establish an “independent commission of inquiry to review the current and historic employment and social conditions of the country’s mineworkers”.

The terms of reference would cover investigations into what went wrong in the industry, where gaps were and what could be done moving forward.

But the problems are much wider than the mining industry, although so-called “wild cat” strikes are spreading like a veld fire through all sectors of that industry after the “success” by the Lonmin workers. Early last week, for example, the transport sector’s cash-in-transit workers reached a strike-ending agreement outside the Road Freight Employers Association (RFEA) bargaining council.

The integrity of the existing dispensation came under further pressure last week when NUM, Cosatu and government called for the “reopening and an early review of wage agreements in the mining industry, in an effort to fast-track the normalisation of industrial relations in the troubled sector”.

Speaking at a press briefing in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi said the NUM had already engaged with the Chamber of Mines in September, demanding that the next negotiations on wages be brought forward from the scheduled June 2013.

This would, however, amount to a mere tinkering with the situation in only one specific industry. In the meantime Ford Asia Pacific and Africa’s president Joe Hinrichs warned last week that there are concerns “from a global perspective” about the labour unrest in South Africa.

 “The labour economic growth rate and work stoppages do not measure up to a globally competitive scale,” he said.

The judicial commission of inquiry, appointed by president Jacob Zuma and which started work last week, will investigate and report on what happened at Marikana. It is doubtful however, if this commission will deal adequately with the wider labour relations issues.

In the wake of the Marikana events it is also becoming increasingly clear that socio-economic and political factors are seriously impacting on labour relations. There are wider issues than the shooting at Marikana that are in need of in-depth consideration if labour relations are to be stabilised.

Among the issues in need of consideration are:

•       To what extent has Cosatu’s involvement as a formal alliance partner in Government impacted on its relationship with workers, since it inherently implies a conflict of interest? A survey among Cosatu members in 1994 found that 72% believed union representatives were bound by the decisions of members. This figure had dropped to only 42% by 2008;

•       To what extent has the use of sub-contractors by mine owners to side-step structures and procedures created by the LRA contributed to the present crisis? It is estimated that at least a third of the workers at platinum mines are employed by sub-contractors and thus excluded from centrally negotiated wage agreements;

•       To what extent has the duality that has developed in the labour market by the system of sub-contracting and the use of labour-brokers contribute to the present labour instability;

•       To what extent has the informal deal, struck with the Lonmin workers outside of the official LRA structures and without the involvement of trade unions, set a process in motion that could de-institutionalise labour relations? Lonmin may have set a precedent for wage settlements that could spread through an economy already saddled with globally uncompetitive costs;

•       To what extent did the appalling living conditions at many mines contribute to the crisis? It would seem that the social and labour plans under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act are malfunctioning and that local governments are not coping with the urbanisation process that accompanied the end of the cheap migrant-labour system on which the mining industry was built; and

•       To what extent has the introduction of living-out allowances, instead of direct housing payments by mines and other fringe benefits like bonuses contributed to the poor living conditions and the development of informal settlements around many mines? Many miners accepted these cash packages only to discover that they had nowhere to live.

Maybe the time has arrived for another holistic revision, on a par with what happened in the 1990s, when the then segregated black trade unions, were integrated with formal legal frameworks.

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