Healing the wounds

Dr Paul Smit, senior lecturer in labour relations at the department of HR management at the University of Pretoria

Dr Paul Smit, senior lecturer in labour relations at the department of HR management at the University of Pretoria

The damage following the Marikana massacre last year runs deep. For the foreseeable future, it is likely to have impacts on the relationship between mineworkers and the management they work under, which means that HR professionals should be especially concerned.

The ongoing upheavals in the platinum sector were compounded by subsequent labour battles, such as the strikes in the Western Cape agricultural sector later last year, which altogether have given academics, nongovernmentals and HR managers much to think about.

Marikana was a turning point, says Professor Peter Alexander, South Africa research chair in social change and director of the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg, “There will have to be changes. But the main issues are societal in nature and HR professionals can only deal with that in a very limited way.”

Global triggers
HR management is trained to liaise with employee representatives on negotiations about wages and conditions of employment, but that is not what triggered Marikana. Its triggers were rooted in history and in global conditions.

“We are in the midst of a global economic crisis,”says Terry Bell, journalist and commentator specialising in political and economic analysis, and labour matters. “This creates massive insecurity and uncertainty among workers who are often well aware that the wage and welfare gap has grown, sometimes massively.”

Alexander says: “It seems as though there’s a growing problem of frustration in countries that have experienced a high level of growth, but where workers haven’t benefited from that growth — for example, there’s a fear that China may become relatively unstable as a result of high growth levels combined with worker dissatisfaction.”

And, says Bell, “In South Africa we also have to deal with a legacy of extremely arrogant management styles (inherited across ethnic lines) at a time when, again because of the insecurity generated by the global crisis, employers are attempting to feather their own nests as rapidly as possible. This includes creating other comfortable nests offshore.”

Extensive debt, built up by mineworkers trying to keep pace with inflation on poor remuneration, was one of the immediate causes of Marikana, says Professor Roger Southall, head of the department of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

But one can look far back in time for deeper roots: “Both agriculture and mining have very bitter historical backgrounds, more repressive than the manufacturing industry.

“Manufacturing drew more heavily upon urbanised labour and continuity of employment (rather than circulating contracts as in much of mining), plus transition to mechanisation, saw greater stability and skilling of the black workforce, hence an earlier transition to unionisation.

  “Furthermore, while in many ways the compounds into which black miners were formally coralled probably facilitated rapid unionisation once the National Union of Mineworkers gained access in the late 1980s, the mines were often large workplaces — less easy perhaps for close contact between union officials and the shop floor,” says Southall.

After 1994 changes rattled the mining environment, says Southall: “With the dissolution of the compound system in post apartheid South Africa, mining companies took the easy way out instead of building local housing for mineworkers families, they have handed out housing allowances. This means miners rent shacks and run into debt with informal creditors.”

  A historical lesson
The lessons are obvious, says Bell, but are they being learnt?

“If you continue largely to ignore matters such as poor housing, low pay, mounting indebtedness and poor communication then you buy trouble. Unfortunately, few seem to have taken this on board.”

Other factors that make life unbearable in mining communities include environmental pollution and dangers to health such as dust, says Caroline Ntaopane, Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance air quality campaigner: “Companies have not learned anything from Marikana. For them it’s business as usual and they are still continuing with their standardised method of one-size-fits-all.”

South Africa might discover the problems associated with one-size-fits-all in other ways, too. There are hints that similar discontent and frustration is growing in the coal mining belt, as well as in other industries such as the transport industry and the Post Office.

“It is highly probable that where similar factors join forces, a similar scenario can develop, like it already has done in the Western Cape with the farmworkers protest,” says Dr Paul Smit, senior lecturer in labour relations at the department of HR management at the University of Pretoria.

Seeking solutions
Cleaving to the letter of the law and defending corporate rights at all costs may not be in the country’s best interest.

“Management and HR must know that even though something may be legal it is not necessarily fair. They don’t have to negotiate with the minority union from a legal perspective, for example, but I think it is unfair to ignore and exclude them from the formal process of negotiations and consultations,” says Smit.

“The law can only provide a framework in which the parties must operate, but ultimately it is up to the parties themselves to build a positive relationship. Rather work on building relationships that are conducive to all parties and productivity than using all legal resources to prove a point; they might win the battle but they are going to lose the war in the long run.”

Southall adds: “Mining employers and their organisations need to recognise their responsibilities, past and present. They are under pressure to satisfy shareholders, but they keep telling us that mining is an industry that has to take a long-term perspective, so they should be taking a long term view about their employees.”

This means interventions in providing proper housing, which is a major beef in mining communities. Ntaopane says that companies should stop giving housing allowances.

“They must build and subsidise houses for the workers. The allowances lead to the mushrooming of informal settlements,” adding a range of societal ills to the picture.

Another option Southall suggests is employee share-ownership plans and similar interventions. Companies should be “thinking about how to work co-operatively with labour rather than taking a simple minimising-cost-by-mechanisation view. It is going to be a long haul.”  

And it’s not all one-sided; Smit says unions have responsibilities, too, but are they living up to them?

“I have always maintained that unions are good at informing and training their members on what their rights as workers are, but fail to inform members of their duties and obligations.

“For every right you have, you also have a duty or responsibility. There is no balance in this regard because all workers know about their rights; the right to freedom of association, right to strike, right to collective bargaining and right not to be unfairly dismissed, but do unions really make an effort to explain the duties and responsibilities of employees when it comes to exercising their rights?”

Ultimately, there is too much at stake to leave the full burden of healing the employer/employee relationship in the hands of the HR profession. Smit says: “This is not a task for only management and HR, it should be an all-inclusive long-term approach by government, trade unions, employers and all social partners.”



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