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The relationship of trade unions with the government has come under pressure

Michael Bagraim writes that trade unions are an integral part of the South African industrial relations system, and that they have an enormous role in oversight and need to report any alleged contraventions of our labour law. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Michael Bagraim writes that trade unions are an integral part of the South African industrial relations system, and that they have an enormous role in oversight and need to report any alleged contraventions of our labour law. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 7, 2022

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Trade unions are an integral part of the South African industrial relations system. Our Labour Relations Act (LRA) affords the right to freedom of association and protection to employees and persons seeking employment.

Likewise, employers have a right to freedom of association. Employees often join trade unions to have a structured way to protect their rights in terms of labour legislation.

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Organisational rights are very much entrenched and every employee has the right to “participate in forming a trade union or federation of trade unions and to join a trade union, subject to its constitution”.

Trade unions, in turn, charge a subscription for membership and partake in the protection of employees and persons seeking employment. These protections are enshrined in our law but it is vital for someone to have the knowledge and the wherewithal to ensure that the protection is applied.

Trade unions have their own constitutions and rules. To give them proper rights in collective bargaining, trade unions need to be registered through the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL).

The subscriptions or levies due to the union would ordinarily go directly from the employer to the union. This authorisation has to come from the union member and must be in writing.

The employee may revoke this authorisation by giving the employer and the union one month’s written notice. Within the public service, this notice must be three months.

Union representatives may be asked by employees to assist and represent them in grievance and disciplinary proceedings. The union has a major function to ensure that the employers’ compliance with the workplace-related provisions of the LRA and any other law is properly implemented.

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Trade unions have an enormous role in oversight and need to report any alleged contraventions of our labour law. More often than not, employees rely entirely on trade union representation in order to ensure that their rights are properly protected.

Union office-bearers or representatives are entitled to take reasonable leave during working hours to perform the functions of their office.

Employers have to disclose to the representative trade unions all the relative information that will allow the representative to perform effectively. Often information is legally privileged or confidential or even private.

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This information would probably require the employee to consent to the disclosure of that information. A representative of a union that is registered with the DEL may conclude a collective agreement with the employer. This agreement gives the union certain rights as contained in the LRA.

Trade unions played a vital role in South Africa attaining our democracy. It could be argued that unions which at that stage fell under the umbrella of Cosatu were committed to the deepening of democracy in South Africa.

Initially the majority trade unions came into an alliance with the governing party in order to ensure that the democracy was properly entrenched. This relevance today is questionable as it looks like the labour movement has been co-opted and is starting to alienate itself from its membership base.

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We have recently seen our government sign a three-year wage increase deal with the trade union movement and thereafter reneged, relying on technical points. This issue angered the unions and placed an enormous strain on the alliance relationship.

It is argued for unions to maintain an alliance with government is in fact selling out their membership. The government is the largest employer in the country and, with unemployment running extremely high and enormous pressure on the fiscus, this alliance will fall apart sooner rather than later.

* Michael Bagraim is a labour lawyer.

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

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Related Topics:

Labour LawTrade Unions

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