Johannesburg - South Africa is ranked lowest out of eight similar economies in average work days lost per year due to strikes, but the demands of workers here are broader than wages and working conditions.
And this is what is troubling the head of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), Nerine Kahn. “Even though as a society we think we are always hit by strikes, we are actually not as bad as other countries.”
According to the commission’s study of its job-saving initiatives on the economy, Brazil, India, Russia and Nigeria, among others, lost far more average percentage work days a year than South Africa. The total percentage number of days lost to strike action over total working days a year was 0.2 percent, according to the UCT study.
In Brazil the average percentage of work days lost a year was 46 percent, Russia 2.5 percent, India 8.02 percent and Nigeria 10.94 percent.
The CCMA, as a key player in the five-month platinum strike and mediating in the current National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) strike, was finding it hard to help resolve workplace disputes lately.
“The strikes that we are seeing at the moment are not only about wages, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) strike had much broader societal issues – the challenges in the community, the lack of delivery, and their demand was to try to ensure the employer pays for the things workers can’t get from the social wage need from the state,” Kahn said.
In the Numsa case, she said: “Even though they might not say this – there is a dispute in Cosatu at the moment and there is a challenge in relation to that – its power lay not only against the employers, but also in relation to how much support they can rally.”
The CCMA found itself almost every week, according to Kahn, dealing with bigger demands that are not just about wages or working conditions.
“We are constantly challenged with issues of workers in the community and that comes from a concern around social wage delivery, education, poverty and unemployed people who are also interested,” she said. “We need a discussion around what’s happening in collective bargaining… even more so following the five-month Amcu strike,”
Kahn said part of the problem was that the nature of the person in labour today was very different to what that person was 10 years ago because of how society had changed.
“We’ve got a more fractious labour market and I think bargaining partners’ capacities have changed,” she said. “The people who originally had a dream of the CCMA are not necessarily involved any more, so people come up with different things and different views. The demands that we have now have become a challenge.”
Kahn said the change in society also meant that employers didn’t place industrial relations at a strategic level any more. “They almost outsource it in the context of workers having no face-to-face dealing with a manager.”
After the Marikana labour unrest in 2012 that ended after the death of more than 40 workers, Kahn said the profound lesson was that the collective bargaining structures no longer met the aspirations of the lowest paid workers.
But the implications of this lesson have not yet been felt: “I am still asking myself if we have learnt anything since Marikana.”
She said the CCMA could only give guidance to parties on what they should consider in negotiations and that the commission did a lot of work in pre-bargaining conferences for trade unions.
“I think we have a long systemic problem that people haven’t changed their mindset on bargaining and they still bargain on a process around a demand and possessions as opposed to bargaining in relation to what is needed,” she said.
In terms of the law, the CCMA could only intervene if the parties in dispute agreed to mediation, Kahn said.
“We have spent a lot of time in the last 10 years trying to get parties to trust the CCMA and let us intervene,” she added. “But it doesn’t mean the strike is going to stop. In other countries around the world, if there (was a) strike like an Amcu one, the head of agency like I am or the court have a right to call the parties and say stop, I am forcing mediation to try to find a solution. The parties can’t say no.”
Kahn also revealed that Amcu’s five-month strike had been marred by political interference, “coalescing the workplace demands with the community demands”.
“There were so many people trying to sort it out and so many interfering, it’s almost impossible to try finding a consistent process of a resolution.”