Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali says it is painful, but necessary, to expel some unions. Photo: Matthews Baloyi

Mike Cohen and Amogelang Mbatha

SOUTH Africa’s labour relations are the most hostile of 144 countries measured by the World Economic Forum. And they’re poised to get worse.

The labour movement in Africa’s second-biggest economy was thrown into turmoil on November. 8 when Cosatu, the nation’s biggest labour group, expelled the National Union of Metalworkers of SA.

The decision was opposed by seven of Cosatu’s 20 other affiliates and its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and sets the stage for a fight for the loyalty and membership dues of the federation’s remaining 1.85 million members.

“Numsa’s expulsion is certainly going to destabilise labour relations further,” Andrew Levy, managing partner of labour consultancy Andrew Levy Employment, said. “It will add to the upward pressure on wages because of union competition. Strikes will become longer and we may well see a rise in inter-union violence.”

South Africa had 114 strikes last year that resulted in the loss of 1.85 million working days and cost employees R6.7 billion in lost wages, Labour Department data shows. Prolonged stoppages by platinum and engineering workers this year will probably restrict the growth rate to 1.4 percent, the lowest since a 2009 recession, according to the Treasury.

ANC opposition

Cosatu has formed part of ANC-led ruling coalition since apartheid ended in 1994. Numsa, which was Cosatu’s biggest affiliate with about 350 000 members, drew the federation’s ire after it accused the ANC of failing to do enough to reduce poverty and a 25 percent unemployment rate, refusing to back the party in May elections. It also violated Cosatu policies by trying to recruit members from other unions.

“In the eyes of investors, it’s bad enough that the unions have been the ANC’s main support base,” Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, said yesterday. “It’s doubly worrying that union militancy in South Africa is growing with each passing day, setting the stage for a much more volatile social and political environment.”

Cosatu also faces increased competition from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which led a strike at Lonmin’s Marikana operation that saw 34 workers killed on a single day in August 2012.

As an ally of the ANC, Cosatu has used its political clout to pressure the government into passing a series of laws to protect worker rights, including the 1995 Labour Relations Act, which promotes industrywide wage agreements. Business groups say the legislation is overly restrictive and deters hiring.

“Cosatu has long been slated as the cause of the inflexible labour environment,” Ian Ollis, DA labour spokesman said. A weakened federation may give the government “the opportunity to relax labour legislation as they will no longer be held hostage by Cosatu”, he said.

While the ANC has urged Cosatu to reconsider its decision to expel Numsa, the federation shows no signs of backing down.

“To expel a union, to kick workers out of the federation is a painful exercise, but we have to stick to principles,” Bheki Ntshalintshali, Cosatu’s deputy general secretary, said on Tuesday. Cosatu’s rules requiring affiliates to stick to one industry and not poach one another's’ members are necessary to prevent rivalry and violence, he said.

Vavi said Numsa’s expulsion threatened to wreck the labour movement.

Economic growth

“I will not be able to defend a decision that I honestly believe is contradicting and undermining organised workers and broader working class unity, a decision that will have momentous implications for years to come,” he said in a letter sent to Cosatu officials yesterday.

The feud will undermine efforts by the government and business to create jobs and spur growth, said Raymond Parsons, a professor at North West University.

“The upheaval in the union movement will inevitably reach the shop floor,” Parsons said. “It injects another layer of policy uncertainty into the business environment.”