The annual industrial action report for 2012, released yesterday by the Department of Labour, paints a grim picture of the state of the country’s labour relations, with 99 strikes recorded and close to half of them unprotected or illegal.
Labour director-general Nkosinathi Nhleko said yesterday that withdrawing legal protection of strikes was one of the policy measures “that would have to be considered” to prevent violence.
He reported that strikes last year involved more than 240 000 workers and cost the economy 3.3 million working days, up from 2.8 million days in 2011. Workers lost R6.6 billion in wages, up from R1.1bn in 2011.
Research by the SA Institute of Race Relations released earlier this year recorded that 181 people were killed in violent protests in the 13 years up to last year. In 2006, 69 people died as a consequence of a violent strike by security guards across South Africa.
Nhleko’s remarks came as Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant condemned violence in the motor industry strike.
In a statement issued by her spokesman, Musa Zondi, she called on parties to “speed up negotiations and where necessary, embrace mediation”.
“Our laws guarantee the right to protest. However, every right must be exercised with responsibility. There is no reason whatsoever for industrial action to be accompanied by violence,” she said.
While the minister did not go into details, Kempton Park has been hit by a wave of violence by striking petrol attendants. Last week, 50 strikers were arrested for public violence. The strike is being driven by the ANC-aligned National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), which is seeking double-digit pay increases while employers are offering 7.5 percent.
Yesterday, DA labour spokesman Sej Motau said the government “has absolutely no concrete proposals to solve violence during strikes”. Instead of addressing these issues, the ANC in Parliament earlier this year rejected proposals for the democratisation of labour relations and voted against introducing the requirement of balloting before a strike, “a measure that would have gone a long way to prevent violent strikes”, Motau said.
Over the past two years strikes have swept the mining industry, with violence on the platinum belt culminating in the Marikana tragedy in August last year, which claimed the lives of 34 on one day.
During a national truckers strike led by the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union last year, trucks were torched and at least one driver lost his life.
The Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI) won a court order yesterday restraining Numsa strikers from engaging in violence and intimidation. It said it had been forced to seek the order due to “the escalating violence and intimidation in the retail motor sector strike”.
While Numsa spokespeople could not be reached last night, general secretary Irvin Jim has repeatedly called for discipline among strikers. He has told workers not to allow themselves “to be provoked”.
Yesterday Oliphant said: “I… urge those that are involved in these acts of violence to refrain from such behaviour. This undermines genuine workers’ demands and peaceful collective bargaining. The trade union leadership has a responsibility to call upon their members to exercise discipline during the protest action.
“I further call on parties in the motor industry to genuinely seek resolution to their impasse. It is in the interest of neither workers nor employers, or the economy as a whole, for parties to continue with a protracted industrial action.
“I have requested the CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] to assist parties in finding peaceful resolution to their labour dispute and I expect them to engage and co-operate with the CCMA.”
RMI chief executive Jakkie Olivier said the violence was escalating daily.
He said: “The RMI has expressed grave concern over the manner in which striking members of Numsa have ignored the picketing rules agreed to by both parties prior to the strike.”
He said appeals to Numsa to control the strikers “have fallen on deaf ears and we are of the opinion that they have little control over their members”.
In terms of the court order, Numsa and its members “are interdicted and restrained from engaging in any picketing on RMI members’ property, preventing non-striking employees from reporting for work, obstructing any entrances or exits of premises belonging to any RMI member, assaulting, intimidating and threatening to assault any customer or non-striking employee or replacement employee of any RMI member”, Olivier said.
They were also constrained from damaging property belonging to RMI members or any member of the public or carrying “or displaying any weapon”, including but not limited to sticks and knobkieries.