by Piet Coetzer

Labour unrest

Lasting peace at mines unlikely without LRA changes

Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu.jpg

Despite an accord reached last week between the department of mineral resources (DMR), the Chamber of Mines and certain trade unions – to seek, and commit to, a framework for peace and stability in South Africa’s troubled mining sector – lasting peace and labour stability seem unlikely, unless deeper structural and legislative labour relations are addressed soon. 

Conspicuous in its absence at the talks led by DMR minister Susan Shabangu, was the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), despite its direct involvement in incidents of unrest at mines, including the most recent violent standoff between rival unions at the Siphumelele Mine in Rustenburg.

As reason for its absence, Amcu said it was insisting that amnesty be granted for all workers facing criminal charges in the wake of last year’s unprotected strikes. 

The local mining industry has been plagued by violence and intimidation for some time, with production at some mines coming to a standstill, resulting in production losses as well as lost income for employees. This has tarnished the sector’s image and investor confidence.

At the root of the problem – and the direct cause of the unrest at Siphumelele, where at least 12 workers were injured – is the fierce competition that has developed between rival unions in particularly the mining industry.

Besides the fact that union leadership has become an attractive career option, creating vested interests for such leaders, this competition stems largely from Section 18 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA). This section of the act creates big advantages for those unions that manage to acquire a majority of members in any given sector of the economy. 

One of South Africa’s smaller but oldest unions, the United Association of South Africa

(UASA), in existence since the late 19th century, has been warning for some time that Section 18 of the LRA is spawning unrest in the mining industry. One such warning came on 14 August last year in the build-up to the ‘Marikana massacre’ two days later. At the time, it warned that “smaller trade unions' struggle for recognition lay at the core of the Lonmin tragedy”.

In a statement after the latest unrest at Siphumelele, UASA said it was to be expected that it was “yet another example of unintended consequences of Section 18 of the Labour Relations Act, and how this section generates tension and unhealthy energy, often leading to violence, when majority unions are favoured above smaller trade unions.

“UASA issued a media release last year (14 August 2012) in which we warned that smaller trade unions' struggle for recognition lay at the core of the Lonmin tragedy. Shortly thereafter, UASA called for responsible union leadership to come to the fore when tensions were again rising in mines following the Marikana massacre.”

It also blamed the president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, S'dumo Dlamini, for triggering the unrest by a provocative remark made during a march by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shortly before the incident directed at Amcu, calling it a "Mickey Mouse union".

This “once again illustrates the intolerance between smaller and larger trade unions over territory”, UASA said in its statement.

In another statement, the union warned that the unrest which has beset particularly gold and platinum mines over the past months could spill over to the coal mines.

In reaction to an agreement between NUM and an affiliate of mining giant BHP Billiton, BHP Billiton Energy Coal South Africa (BECSA), it accused the company of reckless and irresponsible behaviour that invited labour unrest and strikes. 

“BECSA and NUM, unilaterally and without consultation with other stakeholders, concluded a new Section 18 LRA agreement, setting the threshold for organisational rights at 30%. Through this action, BECSA is carrying forward the divisive approach of ‘winner takes all’ and excluding UASA and Amcu from recognition. 

“The previous agreement set the threshold for representation at 15%, for which UASA as well as Amcu had fulfilled the requirements, but were left out in the cold by BECSA.”

How the effect of Section 18 leaves smaller unions and their members vulnerable is illustrated by the fact that UASA, representing some 75 000 workers, found it necessary to write a letter to Anglo American, “demanding that our members are guaranteed their safety in accordance with Section 21 of the Mine Health and Safety Act. 

“UASA also reiterated that failure to provide a safe working environment for our members within a specified time period, will leave us with no alternative but to withdraw our members from the unsafe working area as recommended and provided for in Section 21 of the Mine Health and Safety Act.”

It is, however, not only on the union front that South Africa’s labour relations dispensation is under pressure.

The bargaining council system is also coming under increasing pressure as employers go to the courts to challenge one of its fundamental aspects: the basis on which agreements can be extended to non-parties.

With a judgment against the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council granted late last year, a case against the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry under consideration and the possibility of a constitutional challenge to the LRA, bargaining councils and the minister of labour are facing the prospect of an upsurge in litigation.

The extension of collective bargaining agreements to companies that are not members of an industry bargaining council is believed by many employers and commentators to be a central cause of inflexibility in the labour market, and is forcing up entry-level wages by acting as a ‘legalised cartel’ to keep out new entrants to industry.

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