Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant during a media briefing on the topical issue of labour broking as well as the current wave of industrial actions. Photo: Leon Nicholas

The DEPARTMENT of Labour is championing a “peace accord” as an essential prerequisite to future amicable industrial relations in the mining industry. That labour relations should be peaceful is undisputed. But the course of action pursued to make this a reality should focus on dismantling the regulatory framework that incentivises belligerent union relations.

After the tragedy at Marikana, South Africans have, quite rightly, expected a swift response from the government. Unfortunately, Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant seems to have misdiagnosed the problem.

The minister’s apparent plan to secure pragmatic and peaceful industrial relations in the platinum industry can be summarised mainly as getting all stakeholders to commit to non-violent protests and centralising collective bargaining negotiations.

I think the department’s proposals will fail to address the structural causes of the strife between unions in the industry.

In any complex environment, the first port of call must be to understand the variables incentivising revealed behaviour. In the context of the labour disputes in the platinum sector, perhaps the most pertinent of these variables relates to the existing labour relations regulatory framework, encapsulated by the Labour Relations Act (LRA).

The LRA essentially incentivises unions to push for closed-shop agreements that force non-unionised members to unionise or face dismissal. The rules of the game are such that majority-share unions which successfully enforce closed-shop agreements stand to reap significant financial gains in membership deductions.

It’s truly good to be a recognised union in SA these days. The “official” union in Lonmin’s case stands to gain, at the very least, R7.9 million a year from members’ fees collected across the three mines. Consequently, industrial relations at many workplaces have devolved into nothing more than a ruthless turf war, with the victor collecting the spoils.

“Victorious” unions not only benefit financially, they also get the power. The LRA grants organisational rights to unions that achieve minimum thresholds of representativeness as determined by the relevant collective-bargaining council. Unions that fall short of these benchmarks are marginalised in the negotiation process and subjected to constant intimidation by rival unions, as was explained to the delegation of opposition parties on their recent visit to Lonmin’s Marikana mine.

The minister’s proposed “peace accord” appears to be nothing more than a missed opportunity. What we should really be doing is take a serious look at our labour relations dispensation.

The minister’s proposal is akin to asking football players to meet before a match’s kick-off to secure promises from players that they will not dive. It’s simply not going to happen. Referees apply the rules of the game in such a way that players are awarded free kicks for foul play only if they go to ground.

There is such a strong drive to win at all costs these days. So players are quick to go to ground at the faintest hint of contact to gain any possible advantage for their respective teams.

The noteworthy lesson is that the rules of the game incentivise diving and, while those incentives remain in place, footballers will continue to dive. It’s really as simple as that.

The same logic applies to the minister’s peace accord. Simply attempting to get the four operating unions at Lonmin to promise to play nicely, while the rules encourage the opposite, will result in failure. The message is simple – if you don’t change the rules of the game you won’t change behaviour.

The fact that the Department of Labour’s negotiations last week included the non-recognised Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), in blatant violation of the LRA, proves the point. Labour law must effectively be broken to broker peace.

Even if the minister were successful in securing a sincere commitment from leaders of all the unions involved in the sector, there is good reason to believe this wouldn’t count for much.

Her plan is based on the premise that labour unions have control over their members. From all accounts at Marikana, most of the workers posted on the hill claimed they represented themselves and not the unions, an assertion National Union of Mineworkers and Amcu leaders later corroborated.

If that wasn’t enough, the minister’s next step will be to centralise bargaining in the sector to standardise wage agreements and temper mine-level protests.

Again, it is difficult to see the logic in such thinking. In general, whenever you enforce centrally negotiated agreements across a heterogeneous sector, huge distortions emerge in the market. It’s assumed new mines face the same challenges as established ones, geographical factors are ignored and different mine capacities have no effect on cost structures. These are just a few of the factors the minister is either wishing away or ignoring in her proposed centralised bargaining model for the industry.

Quite simply, different mines exist in different cost environments. The labour bargaining model must account for this. Centralised bargaining will serve only to break the back of an already struggling sector.

The DA believes we should focus on proposals that aim to reform labour law. In this regard, we have proposed a proportional-representation union-bargaining model alongside an improved worker-shareholder model to boost transparency, improve accountability and give every worker a voice.

If we don’t want to see a repeat of the scenes at Marikana, the government should conduct a brutally honest assessment of the draft labour laws before the portfolio committee on labour.

If the national administration cannot find the political will to change the rules of the labour-relations game, then it is sadly only a matter of time before the next Marikana massacre.

l Sejamothopo Motau is the DA shadow minister of labour