Education lobby group Equal Education has contended that the education sector should not be declared an essential service in its submission to the committee investigating whether or not these workers’ right to strike should be limited.
The organisation’s submission follows the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) request that the essential services committee investigate the matter in April, in an effort to quell strike action in the education sector.
On June 15‚ the department of labour’s essential services committee gazetted a notice to announce it was looking into classifying basic education as an essential service under the Labour Relations Act (LRA).
Section 70 of the 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 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, firefighting and emergency health services.
The committee’s public hearings will began on July 11. 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.
“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”.
Equal Education, which last week won another round in its long battle with the department of basic education over setting norms and standards for the provision of school infrastructure, maintained in its submission that it recognises the critical role teachers play in the sector.
“We have consistently put pressure on the state to ensure that conditions of employment for teachers are just, and conducive to teaching and learning,” the organisation’s submission reads.
The organisation conceded, however, that the rights of teachers and the rights of pupils are sometimes in conflict, as teacher absenteeism inevitably puts teaching on hold — threatening the right to access basic education.
But it contended that more important than limiting workers’ rights is to address the causes that leave teachers dissatisfied with their income, their work environment and with the department of basic education.
“It cannot be government’s default position that when workers — such as teachers and bus drivers — embark on strikes and engage in collective bargaining processes to ensure fair remuneration and labour conditions, the ‘solution’ is then to declare these sectors … essential services,” the submission reads.
The organisation called the right to strike a “very powerful weapon”, giving workers the ability to influence employer to deal with workplace grievances.
The organisation also made the point that declaring teaching an essential service opens these workers up to dismissal should they go on strike. “The mass dismissal of educators will have negative consequences on the education of children and their best interests,” the organisation said.
Equal Education’s submission points to the definition of an “essential service” as it has been laid out in several international and regional law agreements which South Africa is a party to.
It specifically details the country’s agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that provides precise guidelines which promote labour rights.
As a member of the ILO, South Africa is bound to its definition of an essential service, which Equal Education says repeatedly confirms that “education cannot be considered an essential service whatever the circumstances”.
“The ILO has a clear definition of essential services, being services in which it is permissible for strikes to be totally prohibited,” the submission reads. “In the strict sense of the term, ‘essential services’ refer only to services that endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population.”
Equal Education concluded in its submission that, though education is essential in informal terms, it cannot in legal terms be considered an essential service.
“It is unlikely that declaring education an essential service will pass constitutional muster. This is based on the import of the right and the definition of an essential service,” the submission reads.