Business Day’s editorial today raises many important issues and stresses the desire to change the way we have been operating and develop a new  model.

In October last year attorney John Brand spoke about the need for a radical reform of the labour laws – see the post Call for Commission to re-examine labour laws.

This was one of his suggestions:

“I would be inclined to collapse the whole centralised bargaining system, but if not, have an absolute rule that only minimum wages can be fixed at centralised level and allow the market to play itself out at enterprise level.   This is something we have all been fighting for,” Brand said, recalling that in 1994 a Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) policy document called for a national minimum wage, and for designated industrial sectors to negotiate minima and actuals to be fixed at company level.

EDITORIAL: Labour relations top the agenda


THE year has barely begun and already there are signs that it will be a watershed year for labour relations, and indeed labour legislation, in SA.   The labour battles of last year, the shifting ground within the labour movement, the notorious Marikana massacre, and increased pressure from both labour and business, mean there is a strong desire from all quarters to develop a new model of labour relations.

What this new model should look like is an extremely complex question, particularly as the aims of the different pressure groups are so divergent.   Yet, one thing is unambiguous: the old system is not working.

Cosatu’s political position has never been stronger, but its shop-floor vulnerability has been exposed by notable inroads by rival unions.   The result has been extremely tight labour markets.   Representatives of the International Labour Organisation and the unions claim this is not so, but that is arrant nonsense.   Closed-shop and agency-shop arrangements, fairly common in SA, are relics in most other jurisdictions.   They are rightly seen as intrusions on individual rights and measures that foster a kind of irresponsible herd mentality in the labour market.   The fact that strike ballots are not necessarily required in terms of SA’s labour legislation exemplifies the intensely union-friendly legislative framework that exists.

Hence, SA begins 2013 at a strange impasse, in which workers are often rejecting the legal mechanisms even though they are strongly designed to tip the scales in their favour in the labour-relations struggle.   The solution to these problems might take years to unfold, but a good start would be to look not so much at labour legislation as at the labour environment, and to try to find ways to improve the attractiveness of hiring.   In other words, turn down the heat.

As always in labour relations, the responsibilities are mutual; Cosatu needs — as it has belatedly acknowledged — to get back to the shop floor.   It needs to do more work explaining the labour-relations environment, and it needs to think harder about when to strike and when not to.   And new unions need to recognise they are equally responsible co-managers in this process.

Something new is also required: worker education about the nature of business undertakings and their dynamics.   Many countries with much better labour relations recognise that workers and businesses are co-dependent.   That recognition is too often lost in the domestic environment.   A good recent example is the decision by Harmony Gold to stop production at Kusasalethu mine: the mine is in a financially precarious state, yet somehow workers have decided this is a good time to pile on the pressure.   In doing so, they are risking not only their jobs but the viability of their industry, something they bizarrely don’t seem to recognise.   There is, of course, much more that needs to form part of this discussion than these brief points, but there is no doubt that, when determining the agenda for this year, labour relations should be written in bold.