Business & Economy

Tuesday, 19 May 2009 13:27

Could more unionists in cabinet accelerate or slow strike action?

{pp}South Africa’s new cabinet has a powerful section of top trade unionists who are likely to reverse government’s controversial GEAR strategy and focus on greater worker rights and development for the poor.

Key former unionists include Deputy President - Kgalema Motlanthe (National Union of Mineworkers) ; Minister of Economic Development - Ebrahim Patel (South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union); Minister of Labour - Membathisi Mdladlana; Deputy Minister of Public Enterprises - Enoch Godongwana (senior Eastern Cape unionist); Minister of Trade and Industry - Rob Davies (long time trade union economist); Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs - Rejoice Mabhudafhasi (National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union), among others.

Coupled with that May to September every year is strike season in South Africa and already there have been doctor, bus-driver and taxi strikes and more are threatened. Liza van Wyk, CEO of major training organisation AstroTech says, “All parties have to be much more careful in this strike season than in previous years. A bad economic climate globally means that pay rises and bonuses for the boss and workers are likely to be low or non-existent. In the United States 15% of the workforce is on short working weeks and bonuses and pay-rises have been scrapped by many companies.

“In the United States every month from November to March more than 600 000 workers lost their jobs, with half a million jobs shed in April. In South Africa economists predict that around 300 000 jobs will be lost. Hard hit sectors here are mining, vehicles, banking, property and construction. We are fortunate that the huge infrastructural projects surrounding the 2010 Soccer World Cup have given jobs to many.” Van Wyk said it was critical that unions, human resources and management be acquainted not just with the latest labour legislation, “but also how to negotiate in an effective, non-confrontational manner that will develop and not cripple an industry. We are already seeing significant percentages of businesses collapsing and more pressure on companies could push them over the edge and result in job losses.”

The total number of liquidations recorded for the first quarter of 2009 increased by 46.7% (from 687 to 1 008) compared with the first quarter of 2008, statistics released in late April by Statistics South Africa showed. There were increases of 58.7% in company liquidations (from 312 to 495) and 36.8% in close corporation liquidations (from 375 to 513). Capitec Bank which targets the lower end of the banking market had the best profits last year; headline earnings were up 42% to R302m from R212m a year ago. But the group announced: "Our bad debt ratio is very sensitive to retrenchments and strikes. We are prepared for further bad news on this front." AstroTech’s course, Labour Relations and Labour Law run by some of South Africa’s top labour lawyers is as relevant for unionists as it is for corporate executives. “We examine issues like updates in labour laws, important case precedents in the last year and key strikes and what triggered conflict or resolution. “It is critical that employers and unions have hard facts of trends locally and internationally to ensure that peaceful and constructive resolution can be attained for all,” Van Wyk said.

Issues examined in the Labour Relations and Labour Law course include the correct processes for discipline, grievances and retrenchment, affirmative action, unfair discrimination, conditions of service, working time and leave, unfair labour practices, conciliation and arbitration, health and safety, and settlement agreements among others. “Among those appointed to cabinet for the first time or re-appointed are unionists with solid track records of understanding their sectors, for example, Motlanthe and Ebrahim Patel have worked in areas profoundly impacted upon by the global economic downturn, namely mining and clothing and textiles. But both in their work as unionists have shown fine economic sensitivities and the ability to come up with solutions that benefit workers and industry. “But everyone whether employers or workers are now walking economic tightropes. But South Africa has some of the finest labour laws in the world, along with exceptional models of good practice whether in union activity, mediation and arbitration mechanisms, and organisations such as Nedlac that have over many years seen exceptional co-operation between business, unions and government.” Van Wyk said that it was “essential however, that everyone works closely together, sticks to the letter of the law and are motivated by solutions that don’t just protect South Africans but that help build the nation.”

AstroTech’s Labour Relations and Labour Law course will be held at the AstroTech Conference Centre in Parktown from 20 to 22 May and again from 16 to 18 September.

Contact information:
Tel: 011 582 3200
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Issued by:
Charlene Smith Communications Pty Limited
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Contact: Leila Beltramo
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Tel: 021 762 2656

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