The labour movement is one of the most important civil society institutions in post-apartheid South Africa. Photo: Motshwari Mofokeng
The labour movement is one of the most important civil society institutions in post-apartheid South Africa. Photo: Motshwari Mofokeng
Dennis George. Picture: Phill Magakoe
Dennis George. Picture: Phill Magakoe

The Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) placed the issue of declining trust in trade unions on the agenda of the 2014 National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) Annual Labour Conference, attended by the leaders of Cosatu and the National Council of Trade Unions.

The labour movement has a duty to interrogate the reasons for distrust in trade unions in post-apartheid South Africa, while labour leaders have to listen to the voices of people at grass roots level. Tactics and strategies of yesterday will not address the concerns of today, and the labour movement needs to reinvent and reframe itself as a resilient, future-oriented structure that is able to confront uncertain and complex global and domestic challenges.

Trust within the labour force declined from 43 percent to 29 percent, necessitating urgent attention from organised labour.

As was seen during the mining strike, many workers voiced dissatisfaction regarding the perceived lack of attention given to their concerns. These workers argued that leaders seemed too close to management, willing to compromise on demands without prior consultation.

Often the role of non-governmental organisations in the domain of trade unions further bedevils collective bargaining processes, with the recent strike violence in the Western Cape farming community being a case in point.

This circumvention of trade union structures is a consequence of the social distance between leaders in the labour movement and workers at grass roots level.

The SA Social Attitudes Survey terms the labour movement one of the most important civil society institutions in post-apartheid South Africa.

Collectively, the movement represents the expectations and hopes of millions of members, workers, as well as the unemployed and young people.

The voice of working people is particularly important in the new democracy, where it is often more influential than opposition parties.

The three federations are committed to strengthen collaboration and co-operation to foster unity and to develop a shared vision to serve the interests of working people, youth and unemployed persons. The labour leaders agreed to start a process of regular meetings to discuss critical issues with a view to better collaboration between parties in order to realise the objective of unity in action.

In his doctoral research, Fedusa president Koos Bezuidenhout explored various options of unity, collaboration and co-operation in the labour movement.

He postulates the establishment of a confederation comprising all three, in order to build trust, collaboration and co-operation.

According to Bezuidenhout, such a confederation could then adopt a 10-point plan, a working programme and grass roots campaigns for the labour movement to build social cohesion and trust, by listening to the people at this level.

The transformational leadership approach is specifically people oriented and empowers them to greatly exceed their previous levels of achievements. Servant leadership also motivates people to do things for themselves rather than being dependent on others to do the right things for them.

Furthermore, it is critical to stage a workers summit to enhance the listening and engagement process among working people; where members, workers, young and unemployed people could come together to produce annual plans for implementation to address the burning issues of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

One of the first tasks of this confederation would be to develop a framework to strengthen unity and trust. It would be advisable to select a neutral credible chairperson and administrative staff to guide the process as to avoid fighting over leadership positions.

A similar approach was used during the Convention for a Democratic SA negotiations to build trust among the political parties during the transitional period of democracy.

It is vital to recognise that the labour leaders at Nedlac already committed themselves to work together for collaboration, co-operation and unity in the 2014 Labour Declaration through the institution of a national forum.

It is also important for the new confederation to strengthen, modernise and invigorate collective bargaining in South Africa. Statistics SA argues that employers unilaterally set wage increases for 53.8 percent of the entire workforce in the country, while employers and trade unions together determine the wage increases for 22.1 percent of the workforce.

The same study confirmed that 9.9 percent of the workforce negotiates with their employers on an individual basis, while bargaining councils are only responsible for 8.2 percent of the employed 14 million in South Africa.

Trade union membership across all groups in the country is also on the decline. It is therefore critical for the labour movement to review tactics and strategies to enhance and modernise the collective through research and innovation to ensure an improved outcome for all.

It is critical to convene a worker summit to strengthen and modernise collective bargaining and social dialogue in Nedlac to ensure research processes build trust and take consideration of the socio-economic conditions of workers, as well as the sustainability of enterprises.

A new package of proposals should be developed to improve the industrial relations system to strengthen the relationship among the social partners, ensure transparency and trust to address the wage gap.

There is an urgent need to develop the capacity of all social partners on transformational leadership, trust, collaboration, social cohesion and collective bargaining. It is important to include an independent acceptance ballot when employers table an offer to give workers a secret voice to accept or to reject the offer of the employer.

This will serve to reduce the high levels of intimidation and violence that have harmed and destroyed trust in unions. Fedusa supports the work of the Nedlac task team to review section 18 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), dealing with the setting of thresholds.

The issue of free riders is normally dealt with in terms of agency or closed shop agreement provisions of the LRA to ensure that workers who benefit from the proceeds of collective bargaining also contribute – as do the paying members.

It is also critical, therefore, to deal with non-affiliated trade unions in the same manner as free riders because these benefit from social dialogue at Nedlac and elsewhere. Non-affiliated trade unions that fail to contribute to such a fund should be deregistered.

The Office of the Registrar of Labour Relations should be strengthened to ensure compliance with section 98 of the LRA in order to build trust and sound financial administration. Labour leaders should always regard union dues as trust money, necessitating proper administration and independent auditing.

The labour movement in South Africa is approaching a new era and it will be imperative to reinvent and reframe itself as a resilient future-oriented structure that will put the interests of trade union members first, alongside the concerns of young people, the unemployed and the poor.

The 2008 Gallup poll indicated that on average, less than half of populations trusted their government, and the situation has worsened since the economic crisis. Politicians and institutions have been blamed for their failure to cope with the crisis and for the impact it has had on the lives of people.

The crisis highlighted serious regulatory failures, uneven enforcement of rules and many other governance problems that called into question the capacity of governments to manage the economy and the eradication of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

The impact of low levels of trust is becoming clearer in South Africa, specifically during election time. Trust in institutions increases economic activity by encouraging investment and consumption decisions that foster growth. Trust in institutions and interpersonal trust reduce the perception of risk related to a range of decisions, from whether a firm should hire new staff or whether an employee should invest in training. Trust extends the planning horizon of economic partners, increasing their dynamism. Economic prosperity is linked to the ability of social, judicial and social institutions to guarantee a predictable and a stable environment.

Trust could help governments, too. Many structural reforms involve short-term sacrifices such as those proposed in the New Growth Path, for the sake of longer-term gains, requiring broad social and political consensus to be effective and sustainable. In a high-trust environment, such reforms can be properly implemented and sustained long enough to bear fruit.

In a low-trust climate, citizens will prioritise immediate benefits, and will induce politicians to seek short-term and visible gains. At a time when South Africa should embark on deep but necessary structural reforms, trust can make a huge difference.

For example, mistrust in the government undermines tax compliance, which in turn reduces revenues available for social expenditures. Citizens are more likely to perceive tax obligations more favourably, and comply with those obligations voluntarily, when their government is seen to be acting in a trustworthy manner. For all these reasons, trust is not simply a confirmation of good economic management, but an important ingredient in economic success – a prerequisite as much as an outcome to eradicate poverty, unemployment and inequality.

* Dennis George is Fedusa general secretary.