Despite the fact that the economy is on its knees and most employers are close to bankruptcy, the unions have tabled demands which have led to the first few rounds of negotiation between themselves and employers and bargaining councils. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
Despite the fact that the economy is on its knees and most employers are close to bankruptcy, the unions have tabled demands which have led to the first few rounds of negotiation between themselves and employers and bargaining councils. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

Now the post lockdown wage struggle begins

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 8, 2020

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by Michael Bagraim

Every year we face wage negotiations between trade unions and the employers.

Many of these wage negotiations take place within the bargaining council settings for specific industries.

Traditionally “demands’’ are tabled between trade unions and employers during the months of around June and July.

The parties then negotiate between themselves on not only wages but various other terms and conditions of employment as well.

Because of the pandemic, 2020 has been an incredibly strange year for not only the lockdown but also for industrial relations.

Many of the trade unions seem to go into hibernation and are often missing in action.

My experience over the non-payment of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) monies was that the trade unions were nowhere to be found when their members were desperately looking for payment to put some bread on the table.

We have only just seen Numsa come forward and mobilise their people against the Department of Employment and Labour.

We have now seen the reawakening of the trade union movement with regard to demands for better terms and conditions of employment and higher wages.

Despite the fact that the economy is on its knees and most employers are close to bankruptcy, the unions have tabled demands which have led to the first few rounds of negotiation between themselves and the employers and, internally, in the bargaining councils.

As can be expected, many of the employers have answered by stating that they are unable or unwilling to consider any increases at all. It is possible that some employers could even make their own demands for wages to be decreased and terms and conditions to become more onerous.

Although I haven’t seen this reaction from employers, it is expected during this current round of wage negotiation.

Strange as it may seem, these negotiations might result in strike action whereby the union members will legally withhold their labour as part of a power struggle at the workplace. We now have a situation in our law where it is obligatory for trade unions to have a secret ballot if one is called for. Many trade union members might think twice about voting in favour of strike action when they realise they have had a torrid time over the past six months and might merely be prolonging the governmental lockdown by declaring their own.

Even the businesses who are traditionally extremely busy over the Christmas period might be looking at the situation and telling themselves that business will not do the same this coming Christmas as it was the last one. My assessment is that almost 50% of our workforce have already lost their jobs and, in fact, in the youth category we have probably over 60% unemployment. To further place your job in jeopardy might be economic suicide for the individual.

My discussions with individuals have shown me clearly that people are not willing to sacrifice their own position in order to gain a few percentage points increase.

If one does the maths it is clearly shown it could take years to catch up on the lost wages during a strike. For instance, if one does not work for a period of two months while on strike and does not receive salary in exchange for a further one or two percent increase thereafter, the returns for the individual might be completely negative.

Even if some employers agree to the increases as demanded, they will probably in turn look at the income and the increased wage bill and decide that they need to look at dismissals for operational requirements. It’s simple maths.

If you employ 10 people who are given double their salary and you can only afford the current wage bill, it is clear that you will retrench five and keep five. This certainly doesn’t fit in with the statement “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Unfortunately, many of our trade unions don’t have the training in basic business science which should be compulsory for trade union organisers.

What is interesting is the fact that we are facing a major strike by Cosatu, which is the largest federation of trade unions in the country. They have about one and a half million members (at the last count) and they have declared a major dispute against government.

We will all remember that in 2018 our government recklessly agreed on a three-year wage increase to give increases which they couldn’t afford even then.

The PSCBC resolved just over two years ago to give unsustainable increases which were underwritten and agreed to by the government negotiators.

This resolution was signed between the parties and resulted in the first two increases.

Economists and commentators all warned the government that the

public sector was paid an unsustainable wage and the increases were completely unaffordable.

Now with the destructive lockdown ordered by the same government, these increases are now not only unaffordable but extremely destructive.

With this in mind, the government is desperately trying to backtrack and argue that the agreement is not enforceable in law.

This argument is before our courts and we will probably get a judgment on this issue soon.

However, Cosatu has called on all the workers within their federation to down tools and participate in an action aimed at government.

They have said they “regard this as a blatant betrayal of workers by the ANC-led government. We are encouraging all the workers and people of Gauteng to support the Cosatu National Strike on October 7 2020. This is a time to stand up and fight against corruption. Failure is not an option”.

It is surprising to hear war talk of this nature and even more surprising because of the tripartite alliance.

As if this was not enough, many of the other big trade unions such as Nehawu are also planning a strike because of the lack of occupational health and safety during the pandemic.

This comes at a time when the pandemic is still active and we desperately need our health workers to be dedicated to the task.

* 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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