The recent sharp increase in cases before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) was an early warning indicator that the economy was heading for extremely tough times, Nerine Kahn, the executive director of the statutory body, said last week.

She also said that for the first time in its 17-year history skilled professionals were referring cases to the CCMA.

Kahn said CCMA cases involving retrenchment had increased in the first four months of this year and were considerably ahead of the number referred to the CCMA in the same period in 2012.

She said the cases involved all sectors of the economy but manufacturing, mining and the banks seemed to be particularly hard hit by retrenchments.

Kahn was talking to Business Report after addressing the Department of Labour about the 25 percent increase in the CCMA’s case workload over the past five years.

Last year about 160 000 cases were heard by the organisation.

“This translates to over 13 000 cases a month or 3 333 cases a week or 667 cases each working day,” Kahn said.

She added that the unprecedented rise in the caseload pointed to antagonistic industrial relations “which is worrying for stability in the labour market and also indicates that the economic environment is tough”.

Kahn referred to research by UCT that identified the level of activity at the CCMA as a barometer of the health of the economy.

She noted that weak economic conditions tended to aggravate the level of antagonism in the workplace.

“When the economy is weak and companies are under pressure then retrenchments increase and the levels of antagonism increase.”

Kahn said leading up to the middle of last year there had been a spike in cases of unfair dismissals and unfair labour practices involving the mining industry.

“This should have alerted everybody to the fact that there were problems in the sector.”

During 2012, 79 percent of the cases handled by the CCMA related to unfair dismissals while 8 percent dealt with unfair labour practices.

Kahn said a new trend developing in the labour market was the increasing number of cases being brought to the CCMA by professionals in the information technology sector and at banks and consultancies.

She could not say, at this stage, whether this trend reflected that a broader range of workers now trusted the effectiveness of the CCMA or whether professionals were now more vulnerable to retrenchments.

“It is possible that 10 years or so ago these sorts of jobs were not shed.”

Amendments to the Labour Relations Act, which are expected to add considerably to the CCMA’s workload, will restrict access to the commission for higher-paid workers.

Further evidence of the current unsettled state of the labour market is the significant increase in applications for union registrations.

Department of Labour deputy director-general Les Kettledas said that in 1995 there were 248 registered unions in the country.

The number peaked at 504 in 2002, while membership increased to 4.1 million from 2.7 million.

There were now 193 registered unions with a combined membership of 3.2 million.

The department was receiving about 140 applications a year for union registration. Kettledas said many were declined because they failed the verification test.

He said the department was committed to a programme of action to stabilise the volatile labour market through facilitating regular monitoring by the CCMA of disputes and by injecting more resources into trade union education.