/ 19 July 2011

‘Don’t use the strikes to further your agenda’

Unions should not use strike action as a rallying call for the ban of labour brokers, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said in Pretoria on Tuesday.

“Issues must be separated: you cannot bring together the issues you have with amendments to labour law while you are in wage negotiations,” Oliphant said.

Oliphant was addressing reporters at a Department of Labour briefing on the status of industrial action countrywide and the progress of amendments to labour law.

M&G photographer Oupa Nkosi arrived in the industrial area of Alrode in Alberton to a sea of disgruntled workers. He approached the volatile situation with patience and, several hours later, emerged with the shot.

Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood, and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu) members are on strike following a breakdown in wage negotiations in the fuel and chemicals sector, a move that has seen hundreds of petrol stations countrywide run dry.

The National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa ended a two-week long strike in the engineering sector on Monday, and the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) is currently in negotiations with employer bodies after taking a decision last week not to undertake industrial action.

The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) is discussing modifications to the Labour Relations Amendment Bill; Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill; Employment Equity Amendment Bill and Employment Services Bill.

The main bones of contention in the debate over legislation have centred on the role of labour brokers, the viability and conditions of temporary employment and how government intends to implement the proposed amendment.

The majority of South Africa’s trade unions, including the country’s largest labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), are calling for a total ban on labour brokers.

Conversely, business have asked for the legislation proposals to be rescinded, saying it would increase unemployment due to a rise in labour costs.

Oliphant said she saw the Nedlac process as flawed if unions continued using the strike action to further their agenda.

“They should not club together wage negotiations with their choice of amendments being made with Nedlac, while they themselves are part of negotiations,” Oliphant said.

Workers ‘not well informed’
Oliphant suggested that workers are not being made aware of where negotiations stand and how proposed amendments would affect the labour market.

“The majority are not well informed and it is the responsibility of union federations to let their members know where they stand,” Oliphant said.

In response to the minister’s comments, Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven told the Mail & Guardian the issue of wage negotiations and banning of labour brokers were two sides of the same coin.

“You can’t separate these issues because labour brokers are one of the reasons wages are so low and they are not viable,” Craven said.

Oliphant has called on all parties currently involved in the current petrol and chemical workers strike, as well as those involved in future labour action, to participate in negotiations as speedily as possible.

“Parties must meaningfully engage to reach agreement to wages and working conditions — lengthy strike action have a severe detrimental effect on the economy,” said Oliphant.

The minister also condemned violence recently seen during protests, including malicious damage to property and intimidation of non-striking workers, while cases of alleged assault by their protesting counterpart has also been reported.

“Damage to property and violent confrontations are completely unacceptable. We strongly appeal to unions to engage in strike action peacefully,” she said.

CCMA to intervene
With a view to aiding in negotiations, Oliphant suggested the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) should be brought in to assist in the bargaining of wage negotiations and conditions of employment.

“Governmental structures can be used to break the deadlock in these negotiations and I really think we can make an impact,” Oliphant said.

In response to the proposal, Craven accepted the idea as a possible solution but said that each wage negotiation was different and should be handled as such.

“We don’t have any problem with that — anything that will speed up an agreement is welcomed, but it can’t be used as a blanket solution,” Craven said.