Security strike exposes labour flaws

The descent into violence by striking security guards this week has exposed serious flaws and cracks in the industrial relations dispensation in South Africa.

Working conditions and wages were the guards’ grievances. But the industry is both rapidly growing and fragmented, with neither a bargaining council nor a history of shop floor negotiations and a suspicion of bogus and sweetheart trade unions among its employees, some semi-skilled, others often from para- military backgrounds. Thus the strike was tarnished by aggression and intimidation.

To cap it all, unions and employers are now split along racial lines. There are a phenomenal 13 different unions involved—unprecedented for one industry. The only one affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions is the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu); the other eight predominately black unions are independent. They are negotiating with four black employers’ associations.

The white unions, which are also unaffiliated, are negotiating with the South African National Security Employers Association (Sansea), which represents about half the industry. The two-week national strike seemed to have ended in the middle of the week, with an agreement reached at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA)—but white employers, who claim to represent more guards than the black associations, did not come on board. Further polarisation is taking place with black unions lauding the agreement as a “black solution”. More than 100 000 guards participated in the strike, only the second in the industry.

Head of the CCMA Thandi Orleyn says she hopes the strike is indeed over, even though white employers represented by Sansea did not sign. The agreement provides for a minimum salary of R1 300, up from the current R1 243. Working hours have been reduced from 55 to 50 hours a week without loss of pay a combination of slightly more money and slightly reduced working hours, which Sansea characterises as a 30% per annum wage increase.

Satawu has lambasted Sansea for not wanting transformation, while Sansea representative Gavin Kirk denies this, saying the demand is not economically viable. “It’s not about racism. There are blatant lies going on. We will continue to try and resolve the issue through negotiation in keeping with the Labour Relations Act.”

Satawu’s general secretary, Randall Howard, says Sansea has undermined the strike by employing scab labour, and in the circumstances, given the nature of the security industry, the strike could have been much more violent. “The black-white divide is not a surprise; we expected this,” he says. “We want to work with employers that want to transform the industry. The white employers are in a highly entrenched position of privilege. The Rubicon has not been crossed; there has been no mind-set change.”

Because security has been one of the fastest-growing industries over the past decade, in correlation with crime, the number of small firms has grown and—creeping through loopholes in the Labour Relations Act—so have the number of bogus trade unions. The three biggest problems with the security industry, Howard says, are the lack of a bargaining council, the contract nature of the work and the ease with which unions can simply register themselves.

The process of becoming a union and the criteria need to be reviewed, he says. But the image of the union has been tarnished with the intimidatory tactics employed by security guards on strike. Jerry Ngcobo of Satawu says the union will address this by handing out a code of conduct during strikes. He blames the Department of Labour for the mess because it has not prevented the mushrooming of allegedly bogus unions. “Anyone can form a union. So there are many unions involved in security which are not bona fide.”

The department says it plans to investigate the allegations. Acting director general Vuyi Raseroka says a “clarification order” has been drafted and will be published by January 15. The type of person who becomes a guard could promote the growth of bogus unions, because few come from a trade union background. Orleyn says many security workers are migrant labourers who are unskilled and uneducated. There are also many who have moved from the public sector into the private sector of security, for example former police officers.

“There is a low level of education, a range of employers, big-sized and small, contract and not contracted workers. It’s an industry susceptible to the problems of contract work, where labour relations become subverted. It’s not a cohesive industry.” By contrast, where there is a bargaining council, such as in the motor industry, negotiations are easier and strikes are more disciplined, says Orleyn. Although the CCMA has brokered an agreement, a lack of unity among employers and unions means there can be no guarantee that the strike will end.

For labour analyst Gavin Brown this industry “has all the ingredients for unpleasant industrial relations. Divides along racial grounds, too many different unions, ideological differences among unions ... the work is hard and the pay is poor in the industry, which is growing. Wage increases get passed on to consumers who resist, employees are unskilled and unsophisticated.”

Besides increased pay and a reduction of working hours, security guards are also negotiating for two-and-a-half months’ paid maternity leave, five days’ paternity leave, a night shift allowance of R2 per shift and the integration of benefits in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an increase in provident fund contribution to 5%, a cleaning allowance of R35 per month, and an affordable medical aid scheme. Raseroka says changes to wages and conditions of employment should be included in a sectoral determination by March 6. To ensure this happens, a notice for public comments will be published by January 15.

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