Bad workplaces, longer strikes

Strikes over poor working conditions have intensified over the past four years, the recently-released Industrial Action Report for 2018 reveals.

From 2014 to 2018, the number of days spent striking over working conditions rose from 1776 to 128890 — an increase of more than 7000%, according to the report, which tracks the frequency and character of strike action in South Africa.

Although 2014 was the year with the fewest days lost to strikes over working conditions in a decade, the 2018 number is the highest.

The large majority of these strikes were by public sector and municipal worker unions, the director of the labour department’s labour market information and statistics unit, Abrahams Mutedi, told the Mail & Guardian.

In a statement announcing the release of the 64-page report last week, the department of employment and labour emphasised the effect of strikes on workers, noting that in 2018 they lost an estimated R266-million in wages because of industrial action.

The report is aimed at enabling policymakers to find ways of dealing with “violent and protracted strikes”.

In its introduction, the report points to the new strike ballot rules — which require trade unions to conduct a secret vote before they can embark on protected industrial action — as part of the efforts by policymakers “to moderate the workplace disputes”.

The department is mandated to ensure that vulnerable workers are protected by bringing bosses who flout fair labour practices to book. To do so the department inspects workplaces to determine their compliance with health and safety standards and the regulations set out in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

In the past decade, the department has ramped up the number of workplace inspections it conducts.

The data collected by the department suggests that non-compliance with labour standards has slightly decreased since 2010, when 23% of the workplaces inspected were found to be not up to scratch. Last year, the percentage of non-compliant workplaces was 19%.

But these numbers do not reveal the extent of non-compliance in workplaces. Non-compliance can mean anything from the non-issuing of payslips to the exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals.

The data in the Industrial Action Report is also limited.

Mutedi said that although the data could expose worsening labour conditions, it is difficult to determine this because of how it is collected. “That kind of answer is not provided. It is up to the analysts to dig more to find out what happened during that period,” Mutedi said.

(John McCann/M&G)

“When it comes to working conditions, our form is too limited for us to identify the key issue in dispute. ‘Working conditions’ is just a general category.”

Mutedi compared the “working conditions” category to the one covering wage disputes, which historically has always been linked to the most protracted strike action. He pointed out that wages are a far more straightforward reason for workers to go on strike.

The report contains examples of industrial action relating to working conditions in 2018, including the strike by 200 national health department workers who complained of unhealthy working conditions at the Civicus building in Pretoria. The strike made headlines in the wake of the fire at the Gauteng department of health head office in Johannesburg, which workers warned was unsafe.

But many instances of poor working conditions have not resulted in strike action.

Last year, for example, Gauteng labour inspectors said they were “left speechless” after raiding Beautiful City, a blanket factory in Village Deep in southern Johannesburg, which was found to have flouted a raft of labour laws.

The department’s report into the factory revealed that workers were made to work in the dark with minimal or no ventilation. They were not given contracts or information regarding remuneration and they worked extra hours without being paid overtime. Some workers had been severely injured and others were under the age of 15.

In a statement about the factory, Gauteng chief inspector Michael Msiza said: “Such barbaric acts have no place in our democratic state that upholds and promotes freedom, equality and human dignity.

“There is no human dignity in locking in employees and violating their rights in employment including a right to earn a minimum wage and to be covered regarding social security.”

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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