SINCE the incidents at Marikana in August 2012, we have seen a substantial upsurge in labour unrest at our mines, particularly in the platinum industry in which inter-union rivalry, all too often accompanied by violence, has become a major feature.
Because retrenchments in the platinum sector are sure to follow the agreement that ended the five-month-long platinum belt strike, further turmoil could ensue. What can be done to secure peace and stability in a sector that needs it so much?
It is difficult to find a silver lining, but a positive development is that the minister of labour, Mildred Oliphant, has announced that she wishes to convene a conference of all interested parties to consider the state of labour relations in the mining industry and amendments to labour legislation.
The unrest in the industry has provided a number of lessons that employers and the government should heed when trying to restore peace and prosperity to this industry. For employers, the most important is the need to reconsider their remuneration and bargaining practices and avoid those that favour a dominant trade union to the exclusion of smaller ones.
Mining companies should be encouraged to deal with the socio-economic issues affecting their workforces more effectively. Indebtedness, poor living conditions, water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure must be addressed.
However, the responsibility does not only fall to the private sector. The government must use the taxes and royalties paid by mining companies to improve the conditions of workers living in informal settlements and communities around the mines.
Consideration must be given to changing the migrant labour system in which employees maintain two households, which is a chief contributor to being heavily indebted.
Finally, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) strike has highlighted the imperative for mining companies to show sensitivity when financially rewarding executive management while refusing double-digit increases to workers.
The government must amend the Labour Relations Act to ensure stability in labour relations. Parliament has approved proposed amendments, but there is time to review a number of provisions relating to strikes and picketing. A pre-strike ballot is an obvious and sensible method of limiting the power of small groups in a majority trade union to force reluctant members to strike. The powers of the Labour Court to order a return to work and suspend a protected strike that turns violent must be reconsidered. Similarly, the court’s powers to grant urgent interim relief when there is noncompliance with a picketing agreement or rule also needs to be strengthened.
The powers of the labour minister to intervene in strikes in which the parties cannot reach settlement and the economy is threatened should be considered. This would mean amending the law to allow the minister to intervene in the public and national interest, calling for a return to work while the parties refer their dispute to binding arbitration.
Provisions that afford a “winner takes all” dispensation in which the majority trade union determines certain thresholds to exclude minority unions from participating in the workplace must also come under scrutiny.
Finally, the government must also show leadership and take active steps to see that role players comply with the Framework for Peace and Stability in the Mining Industry.
It should review its close relationship with the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The split of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from Cosatu and its intention to call a metal and engineering industry strike in July will be a severe test for the government — one in which it must be unbiased and supportive of the rule of law.
It can only be hoped that the leadership of Amcu and other belligerent trade unions realise the grave consequences of their tactics and the risk that continued strike action could send South Africa’s fragile economy over the precipice.
Job creation, economic stability and respect for the law should be the ultimate goal of all role players.
• Olivier is a partner specialising in employment and employee benefits law at Webber Wentzel.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times