‘Teachers’ right to strike must be protected’ – Section27

Advocacy group Section27 has contended that teaching should not be deemed an essential service in its submission to the committee investigating whether or not these workers’ right to strike should be limited.

This follows the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) request that the essential services committee investigate the matter in April, in an effort to quell strike action in the education sector.

Section 70 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) defines an essential service as “a service, the interruption of which endangers the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population”. The Act puts a limit on these workers’ right to strike.

The essential services committee is tasked with investigating whether or not a part or a service in its entirety, is essential. The committee has declared 18 services to be essential, including air traffic control, blood transfusion services, firefighters and emergency health services.

The committee’s public hearings will began on Wednesday. Whether or not public transport services should be rendered essential is also under investigation. The probe has potentially far-reaching implications on how these workers organise and pursue industrial action.

The committee’s investigation also comes after Parliament’s milestone decision to approve a major labour legislation overhaul, passing the National Minimum Wage Bill, the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill.

The amendments to the LRA enforce “more stringent” regulations on workers’ rights to strike.

READ MORE: R20/hour a step closer for workers

“Unfortunately, teachers’ unions have shown a blatant disregard for this duty of care, frequently engaging in union meetings and unplanned strikes during school hours,” the DA said in its submission to the committee. “Learners are abandoned, unsupervised, thereby compromising their safety.”

The party took aim at the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu): “Striking union members have, in the past, seriously damaged school property, as occurred during the extensive 2010 strike. Sadtu members also frequently intimidate non-striking education workers, illegally accessing schools and harassing learners.”

The Cosatu-aligned union is the largest teachers union in the country.

In a press statement Sadtu responded to the DA’s allegations that the union does not care about the safety of pupils, calling the party’s efforts a “publicity stunt”.

In its submission, Section27 disputes the DA’s contention that strike action in the sector is so frequent that it constitutes a significant threat to pupils’ access to basic education.

READ MORE: South Africa’s strike rate isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be

“Strike action, while affecting education, cannot be said to be the primary cause of poor education. Therefore, we argue that underlying causes of poor educational outcomes be addressed,” Section27’s submission reads.

“Further we submit that teacher strikes are infrequent and the harm is mitigated through development and implementation of catch-up plans.”

The advocacy group suggested that the committee’s approach to the matter must balance the rights of workers and the rights of pupils.

There are many less restrictive means to achieve the purpose of protecting pupils’ right to basic education, the submission says, including “social dialogue, negotiations, improved conditions of service for teachers, and various other forms of imposing accountability on teachers”.

Should the committee designate teaching an essential service, Section27 recommends the designation be partial and only to the extent necessary.

In this case, the group suggests a minimum service agreement should be drawn up which restricts matric teachers from striking, lays out a catch up plan to be implemented immediately after a strike and, where strike action is prolonged, imposes a temporary essential services designation.

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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