Johannesburg - It is more than four months before the year ends but South African workers have already lost more than R11 billion in wages due to strikes - the costliest industrial action has been under President Jacob Zuma.
Figures from the Department of Labour’s latest annual industrial action report show that R6.7 billion in wages were lost last year while the figure was R6.6bn the previous year.
When Zuma became president in 2009, workers lost R235 million and the following year R407m. In 2011, wage losses more than doubled to R1.07bn before increasing six-fold to R6.6bn in 2012.
Last year, workers in North West lost about 3.3bn while close to R2.8bn was lost in Gauteng.
According to estimates, the wages bloodbath experienced by workers this year is mainly due to the five-month strike by nearly 70 000 members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). By the time the Amcu strike ended in June, platinum mining companies put their employees’ lost earnings at 10.6bn.
Last year, less than half of the 114 strikes (48 percent) recorded by the department were protected.
The country has experienced a rise in strikes from 2009 to last year with the exception of 2011 when a lower number of strikes were recorded.
In 2009, the department recorded 51 strikes, 74 a year later, 67 and 99 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
The longest strikes last year include a 70-day action at Document Warehouse, Rumdel Construction (57 days) and 3D Marketing (52 days). The Amcu strike took 156 days before it was finally settled on June 24.
A few days after the platinum wage deal was sealed, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) embarked on its own month-long strike by 200 000 members in the metals and engineering sector.
The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA’s chief economist Henk Langenhoven told The Sunday Independent they were still consolidating figures from the strike and that it would take up to three months to conduct a proper analysis of the losses incurred by workers and their employers.
At the height of the four-week Numsa strike, the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry claimed over R300m was lost daily by the economy.
Among the main causes of strikes are disputes over wages, bonuses and other compensation, grievances, trade union recognition, working conditions, socio-economic and political conditions.
According to the Department of Labour, the most strike-prone union last year was the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union, whose members lost over 466 000 working days.
Numsa members lost 305 398 work days, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) lost 321 598 work days and its bitter rival Amcu, 134 064.
NUM recorded less members participating in strikes last year compared to 2012 and the department believes union members opted out of strike action because their participation amounted to “no work no pay” or found employment elsewhere.
Last year, Numsa also led its members in the car manufacturing industry to a lengthy strike.
The big car makers – Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz – were affected by strike action.
Of the nearly 300 000 workers who went on strike last year, almost 205 000 were in the mining industry while there were about 22 000 each in the manufacturing, transport and community services sectors.
Out of the 24.5 million working hours lost in 2012, mining accounted for almost 20 million, mainly due to the wildcat strikes that hit platinum mines in North West and ultimately led to the Marikana massacre.
Over 50 people were killed during the wildcat strikes at Lonmin and earlier in the year, Impala Platinum.
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant has expressed concern about the logic of pursuing strike action to the point of damaging workers’ interests.
Oliphant’s department has warned that increasing strikes will not be without implications and that the more strikes in the private sector, the less the investors will be interested in that sector.
According to the department, unions and employers must not wait until wage agreements lapse but start with negotiations within a reasonable time and unions also need to take responsibility to guide and advise workers in shortening strikes.
It says strikes often result in low wage settlement percentages.
Joseph Maqhekeni, president of the federation to which Amcu belongs, the National Council of Trade Unions, said workers were fed-up as they were worse off compared to senior managers and executives whose salary increases don’t depend on negotiations and strikes.
“Workers are the most disadvantaged since 1994,” Maqhekeni said.
He said the right to strike was in the country’s constitution and couldn’t be taken away.
Maqhekeni said some Cosatu affiliates had become sweetheart unions and that the country’s biggest federation thought government would negotiate on its behalf because of the tripartite alliance.