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Air turning frosty as wage negotiations get under way

File photo of South African Municipal Workers Union members protesting. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

File photo of South African Municipal Workers Union members protesting. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 27, 2021


The start of winter heralds the start of the wage negotiation season. Many industries are embroiled in wage negotiations on behalf of industries and bargaining councils and many large businesses are engaging with their trade unions. The government is also heavily ensconced in round-table meetings with public service unions and representatives.

The lockdown period last year took its toll on businesses and wages and, to a large degree, dampened everyone’s spirit. In most cases, there were zero increases and, in many cases, wages were reduced. Workers have been battered by retrenchments, layoffs and wage cuts.

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We are starting to see some green shoots of a revived economy and these translate into expectations of greater wages. Unions should be warned that untenable wage demands sometimes lead to very unfortunate stand-offs and even strike action. Workers need to be told that there will be no wages during strikes and it can take years to recover lost wages if a strike lasts weeks on end.

It does bear repeating that all employees must have written particulars of employment.

This is governed by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act No 75 of 1997 as Amended. In particular, Clause 29 states that the employee’s wage or rate of method of calculating wages must be contained therein.

With that must be the overtime rate and or any cash payments the employee is entitled to. It also must deal with the frequency of the remuneration and any deductions to be made from the employees’ remuneration. Employees must be aware of their remuneration and how it is calculated.

A wish to have the remuneration increased is not a dispute of right but an interest dispute. All disputes of rights must be referred to either the Bargaining Council or the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and, possibly, the Labour Court.

However, if it is a dispute of interest, then that would lead to a power struggle which could lead to a strike. Unions are fully aware of the consequences of a strike and how the process must be followed in order to ensure that the strike is legitimate and legal.

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If unions take their members out on an unprocedural strike, this could lead to disciplinary action and, in severe cases, dismissal.

Unfortunately, we are seeing an enormous number of illegal strikes with incredibly sad outcomes. There have been some instances where union members have, in fact, taken their union to court because of its inappropriate advice and illegal behaviour.

Our Labour Court has been harsh on unions who have given reckless advice to their members.

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The wage negotiation season is largely driven by union officials in industries and larger businesses. Many small businesses who are within the various bargaining councils would be bound by the wage agreements that struck and would be affected if the industry called a strike.

In small businesses where there are no trade unions and there is no structured wage negotiation it becomes all the more difficult.

I am aware that a request for an increase in wages (salary) does sometimes feel uncomfortable and can lead to a possible dispute.

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In larger businesses, it has become common practice to bring in facilitators to help in the negotiations.

Also, we are starting to see wage negotiations producing multiple-year agreements.

In other words, large employers and various industries would agree on a percentage increase for the next three or four years.

This is useful in that wage negotiations are often dysfunctional and do lead to possible strikes, work stoppages and go-slows.

I am aware that the chemical industry is embroiled in wage negotiations and have had numerous meetings with the trade unions. The meetings are slowly bringing the parties together as the expectations from both employers and employees were poles apart.

Many of the industry-wide negotiations are trying to adhere to the notion of using consumer price index as some kind of benchmark.

The unions have reacted to this negatively and are looking to much greater increases because of the devastation of the lockdown.

Many employers are stating that, under the current economic climate and the lack of profits, the demands are unrealistic and unfair.

The employers are, unfortunately, digging in their heels in many sectors and we are therefore expecting unpleasant turbulence which might make this forthcoming winter a winter of discontent.

* Michael Bagraim is a labour lawyer. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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

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Related Topics:

Covid-19Trade Unions