Workers rights rolled back as Covid-19 strikes

The rights of workers to go on strike have been seriously eroded in the past six years.

The recently released International Trade Union Confederation (Ituc) Global Rights Index found that, in 2020, strikes have been “severely restricted or banned” in 85% of the countries surveyed. This is an increase of 25% since 2014.

According to the study, which looks at the worst countries for workers, this erosion of the right to strike has been accompanied by a slew of other violations, including the limiting of workers’ rights to join trade unions and to access collective bargaining.

In the last year, South Africa’s global labour rights rating has worsened, indicating that the country has seen regular violations.

The Ituc findings don’t bode well for workers, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic plunges economies into crisis and governments step in to protect employers from its effects. 


The study notes that the economic effects of the pandemic have laid bare longstanding deficiencies in labour rights around the world. 

“The recovery process could give us a new model for the global economy; a new commitment to workers’ rights and renewed investment in compliance and the rule of law … But unless we build trust in democracy, beginning with workplace democracy, we put at risk the very foundation of our societies,” the study reads.

The International Labour Organisation predicts that the pandemic will trigger massive losses in working hours, equivalent to 305-million full-time jobs, in the second quarter of 2020. 

This will have a disproportionate effect on workers in the informal sector, who already don’t enjoy the same protections as formal workers. Informal workers typically experience poorer working conditions and weaker trade union representation.

The situation in South Africa

In South Africa, the pandemic comes on the back of a set of sweeping changes to labour legislation at the end of 2018, which critics argued rolled back hard-won rights of workers to strike. 

One of these changes was the controversial strike ballot provision, which requires trade unions to conduct a vote in secret before embarking on industrial action. The provision has been used by the labour registrar to deregister trade unions that have failed to conduct strike ballots.

The provision has also been used by employers to interdict strikes by deeming them unprotected, although a recent labour appeal court judgment has refuted the lawfulness of this course of action.

The March 27 nationwide lockdown presented a further limitation to the right to strike, especially for workers deemed essential during the period.

The Labour Relations Act defines essential service workers as those whose services cannot be disrupted, such as paramedics and air-traffic controllers. But under the lockdown this category was expanded to include food, retail and production industry workers.

The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has stepped in on at least three occasions to prevent strikes by these workers during the lockdown.

Meanwhile institutions through which workers access their rights, like the CCMA, were forced to limit their operations during the first phases of the lockdown. 

In April, the Mail & Guardian revealed that in the first month of the lockdown the CCMA dealt with an average of 190 case referrals a day. This was down from an average of 775 new cases referred to the CCMA every working day in the 2018-2019 financial year. 

CCMA offices reopened in May. But the announcement of their reopening was soon followed by news of temporary closures in East London, Cape Town, Tshwane, Rustenburg, Klerksdorp, Polokwane and Johannesburg.

Earlier this month the department of employment and labour announced that several of its offices “have been affected by the Covid-19 virus”. The Unemployment Insurance Fund head office in Pretoria had to close its doors this month after a staff member tested positive for the virus.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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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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