South Africa?s labour relations is at a defining moment in our country?s history.
Over the past few years, unprotected strike action has escalated into an
uncontrolled, violent and unlawful landscape, led by a mob mentality in the absence
of formal and recognised leaders.
This is the view of Chris Jacobs, conflict resolution expert at OIM, one of South
Africa?s leading business performance specialists. "On the one hand, this is the result
of major social frustration. Unfortunately, it is the workplace that has become the
warzone, with grave consequences for employers. On the other hand, it is also a
result of complacency which has set in with and between businesses and labour
leaders, as well as legislation which has not adapted to the changing
Jacobs says there is no doubt that the labour relations landscape in South Africa
needs to change to an environment of normality, stability and order. "In order for this
to happen, employers need to re-establish constructive relationships with all
employees, not only union leaders, and manage both legislative challenges as well as
economic demands. To achieve this, it is imperative that sound employee relations
strategies be developed rather than short-term re-active tactics.'
Jacobs argues that change needs to happen at a union, employee and employer
Unions face serious challenges right now, with a recent Human Sciences
Research Council (HSRC) study revealing that South Africans? trust in trade unions
dropped sharply from 43% in 2011 to 29% in 2012. According to Jacobs, this trend is
in line with developed economies.
He says some of the challenges faced by unions include diminishing membership
numbers, a disconnection with their members and unhealthy competition with each
other. "This has lead not only to the destabilisation of the workplace but also
intimidation, injury and loss of lives. Even though this is nothing new, it now happens
even more so in organisations within the same "broad circles/domain'.
"In the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), affiliates such as NUM
and NUMSA, FAWU and SACCAWU to name a few, are fighting it out for the hearts
and minds of members in the same workplace. The policy of one country-one
federation-one industry-one union has been allowed to be trashed by affiliates.
If affiliates do not even respect the policies of its mother organisation, how will they
respect the policies of companies in which their members operate. The workplace has
become a battleground again like in the 1980s, to the detriment of the employer.
Unions need to seriously re-establish contact with their members, and take
responsibility for their own actions and those of their members.'
According to Jacobs, centralised bargaining is another labour practise that is
currently experiencing a crisis. He says that this is a reality that needs to be faced
and appropriate strategies needs to be followed.
"Centralised bargaining was traditionally favoured by the bigger unions that were
in favour of the concept of majoritarianism - the union that forms the majority has all
the organisational and bargaining rights. In the process, such unions became the sole
voice for all employees. This defeated the objective of workplace democracy in
essence. In cases where this situation has now been turned around, some unions
prefer to go back to decentralised bargaining as it puts them in a position to deal
with site specific issues and gives them a voice which they would not have had in a
winner-takes-it-all situation of centralised bargaining.'
Jacobs explains that site-specific bargaining is more demanding of employers, as
they often have to invest the same effort into each discussion, but is more
rewarding in the long term as potential conflict situations can be avoided. "We?ve
often seen that in many cases a relationship is built with a union and an employer
with a centralised bargaining approach, but there is no recognition of other unions
playing a role in the workplace. This creates tension between employees, unions and
Despite all the challenges, Jacobs is optimistic about the possibility of positive
change in the current labour relations landscape.
"Change is possible, but one has to realise that the wheels turn slowly. For
example, the 1995 Labour Relations Act (LRA) was designed for the circumstances of
that period, which means that majoritarianism which may have been appropriate
then, is largely out-dated now, especially as workplace democracy is not being
upheld. This needs to be revisited. Currently we have a whole chapter in the LRA,
chapter four on Workplace Forums, which is rarely applied if at all, save for two or
three definitions. No workplace forums, as intended by this chapter, currently
He says employers and unions cannot wait for legislative changes before taking
action. "Companies must ensure that they have a sound Employee Relations (ER) and
Human Resources (HR) strategy in place and act proactively, not reactively when
conflict situations arise. This means that the current mindset of business leaders has
to change; they can no longer see ER as the "soft side? of the business. Last year
showed that the absence or lack of a pro-active strategy can cost millions and
cause the loss of lives.'
Jacobs explains that the first step in creating an ER strategy is to ensure a fair
workplace climate and the right corporate culture.
"Companies have to ensure an equitable workplace, which includes having
policies, practices and procedures in place that are legally correct and suited to the
company?s culture. This can include disciplinary codes and employment equity
practices, and must be consistently applied to create the right climate and culture in
the workplace. Furthermore, appointed leaders have to guide the way and create a
climate beneficial to peace and harmony in the workplace.
"Staff need to understand where the company is heading in terms of vision and
strategy and they must know how this translates into goals that apply to them. This
includes discussing the company strategy and organisational values, analysing team
goals and targets, participating in collective risk identification and problem solving,
sharing and debating company information, as well as focusing on relevant strategic
and learning topics,' Jacobs argues.
He suggests that management must actively take up the role of primary
communicator. "Open and honest communication directly with the workforce, rather
than relying on unions, will allow correct and consistent messages to be
It will also avoid the problem of not reaching staff with information in cases
where staff members are dissatisfied with, or reject union leaders, and thus also their
messages. For these purposes structures need to be established throughout the
organisation to communicate the right messages. Moreover, leaders need to be
trained to communicate effectively and to deal with issues before they get out of
Jacobs says that the aim is to foster holistic business understanding among the
workforce, through training on global, political and economic realities, labour rights
and responsibilities, sector-specific developments, new legislation, productivity and
"Lastly, employee relations practitioners, shop stewards and leaders in general
need to be up-skilled in industrial relations and conflict resolution through interactive
workshops. This will equip them to interpret trends and to identify, understand and
deal with potential conflict situations before they happen,' concludes Jacobs.