JOHANNESBURG - The most historic and progressive changes to South Africa’s labour legislation were adopted overwhelmingly by the National Assembly on Tuesday.

They were the most significant and progressive amendments to our labour laws since the end of apartheid and the dawn of our new democracy in 1994.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly adopted the Labour Relations Amendment Bill. It will now be referred to the National Council of Provinces for consideration, further public hearings, possible additional amendments and deliberation.

The Labour Relations Amendment Bill has been the subject of much media hype and hysteria. Sadly, most of it is political posturing and deliberate disinformation. While its critics have said it will collapse the right to strike, nothing could be further from the truth.

Strikes and balloting

Critics have said it will force workers to ballot before going on strike, that it will allow the bosses to monitor this balloting and to take this to court if they think the balloting was not done secretly, placing all sorts of onerous obligations on workers. Fortunately, this is pure sloganeering and does not contain a single iota of truth.

Balloting before strikes and lockouts have been requirements of the LRA since it was adopted in 1995. As part of their registration requirements with the Department of Labour, both unions and employers’ organisations have been required to conduct ballots of their members before embarking upon strikes or lockouts. This provision has had to be included in their constitutions. The provision for ballots to be conducted in secrecy has been in the act since 1995.

Not once over the past 23 years have any of these critics complained about this requirement.

In fact, Saftu’s general secretary, in his previous incarnation as Cosatu’s general secretary, frequently praised the LRA as the best and most progressive labour law in the world.

Today, for reasons of political posturing, we are now told it is terrible and collapses the right to strike.

The sole change with regard to balloting in the LRA Amendment Bill is the clarification of the secret or confidential nature of a ballot. This is in line with South African voting traditions. In fact, it reinforces worker control of unions. It is in fact already spelt out in the existing act. The bill simply clarifies it. So in simple words there is no fundamental change here.

The LRA further states in section 67 (7) that no employer may litigate against a strike in court upon the basis of how workers conducted their balloting.

Business had attempted to require unions to ballot members when a wage offer was proposed and to suspend strikes during this second ballot.

This proposal was soundly defeated by Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu when presented at Nedlac as it would have in effect collapsed strikes by suspending them and was simply unnecessary. The agreement in the LRA Amendment Bill is simply for unions to consult their members on the proposed offers.

It’s a pity that we give airtime to people who have not bothered to read the act or the bill.

Extending collective agreements

The LRA Amendment Bill will strengthen collective bargaining by allowing the Minister of Labour to extend collective agreements where parties may not be 51percent of their workforce or sector but are sufficiently representative. This will see millions of outsourced, subcontracted or labour broker-employed workers enjoying the benefits and cover of agreements won by trade unions.

This is particularly important in the retail, mining and other industrial and services sectors where the rise of labour broking and outsourcing has grown massively in the past two decades.

Currently, more than a million South African workers are employed by labour brokers. Those workers are essentially casual or permanently temporary. If they join unions to assert their rights, they are simply replaced. This provision will enable collective agreements, for example covering salary increases, benefits, leave, working hours etc that unions have been able to negotiate with employers to be extended by the minister to cover these vulnerable and exploited labour broker workers. It is a huge leap forward to improving their horrific conditions.

Picketing rules

A code of good practice picketing rules will be negotiated by the Department of Labour with Cosatu, other unions and business at Nedlac to protect the rights of workers picketing or demonstrating.

This will assist in providing labour market stability. It will help to avoid violence and confrontations. It will protect the right to picket by workers. This will help thousands of retail and industrial and other workers whose right to peacefully picket is often abused and disrupted by employers and security companies hired to intimidate these vulnerable employees.

Advisory arbitration

The CCMA will be empowered to assist with the resolution of strikes when negotiations have collapsed and have no prospect of being revived, where violence has broken out or people’s constitutional rights are at risk. It does not stop the right to strike nor does it suspend strikes as critics falsely claim. It merely allows the CCMA to propose settlement offers to employers and employees. This will assist workers facing intransigent employers who refuse to talk. Parties will then be given seven days to accept, reject or counter the proposed offer. If that is not enough time, they can then request an additional five days.

Workers strike as a means to an end, not as the end in itself. Workers battle during strikes as employers apply the no-work, no-pay principle. The proposed advisory arbitration will greatly assist workers to force the employers to the negotiating table.

The LRA Amendment Bill has been painstakingly negotiated over the last three years at Nedlac and Parliament between government, business, labour and civil society organisations. It protects the rights of workers to strike. It strengthens collective bargaining and the right to picket.

It offers renewed hope to workers exploited by labour brokers. It will help facilitate greater labour market stability. It has not come at the cost of workers’ hard-won constitutional rights to strike. It shows the value of social dialogue. This is what is needed to turn the new dawn into a living reality for not just workers but in fact the entire nation.

Matthew Parks is Cosatu’s parliamentary co-ordinator.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.