Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has warned of more job losses, saying it has seen a sharp spike in cases brought before it over the past two years as businesses go into distress.

CCMA director Nerine Kahn said on Friday that all sectors were laying off people.

In the first quarter this year, there was already a 40% rise in cases before it, with 23,231 jobs at stake compared to the same period last year.

Large-scale job losses in the mining and manufacturing industries had been extensively publicised, but Ms Kahn said there had been a huge rise in small-scale retrenchments.

Small scale involves 10 or fewer jobs, while anything above 10 is deemed large scale.

Small-scale layoffs were of concern as they tended to be at workplaces that were not unionised and happened away from the public glare, said Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) president Sdumo Dlamini.

Although the official unemployment rate came down in the second quarter, it was largely due to the fact that discouraged people stopped looking for work. The jobless rate has remained stubbornly high at about 25%.

The CCMA has dealt with 1,036 cases of large-scale retrenchments and 13,020 small-scale retrenchments in the past two years.

It had 6,416 small-scale retrenchment referrals in 2013-14 and 6,604 in 2014-15. To date, it had 2,175 small-scale referrals this year. It received 517 notices of large-scale retrenchments in 2013-14 and 519 in 2014-15, with 274 in the period from January to August this year.

The commission recorded a huge spike in June — 76 notices were received compared to 45 notices last year and 32 in the same month in 2013.

Retrenchments affected several sectors but were most pronounced in mining, which is experiencing a severe downturn due to a slump in demand and commodities prices and manufacturing that contracted in the second quarter.

The CCMA is now attempting to design an "early warning system" that will help businesses take measures to prevent job losses before they issue retrenchment notices.

Two years ago, the CCMA created an employment security unit funded by the Treasury.

Through its efforts in 2013-14, it managed to save 33,694 jobs and about 12,000 jobs to date in the 2014-15 period.

It offers information on state initiatives to help prevent companies in distress from resorting to "knee jerk" job cuts.

"If you want a small example … we said (to a company that) management can stop flying business class, I can tell you now that those guys looked at us really shocked when we suggested that," she said.

It also included asking workers who were intimately involved with the day-to-day running of the business for suggestions on cutting costs.

Often employees themselves had "great ideas" that prevented job losses, she said.

Initiatives to prevent retrenchments largely include support for businesses in distress by exploring alternatives to business closure such as cutting costs, revising work hours, reducing work-day weeks and increasing productivity.

When job losses are unavoidable, workers are encouraged to make use of state support mechanisms such as the unemployment insurance fund. They are also assisted by the CCMA to better use their retrenchment packages by saving or investing.

Ms Kahn said they were encouraged to first get rid of their debt and were then put in touch with organisations that could help them start small businesses.

A training lay-off scheme recently came into effect. However, both the CCMA and trade unions have said workers have had difficulties with taking up this support measure.

Ms Kahn said there were "bureaucratic challenges" as it involved co-operation between a number of government departments including higher education and training, and labour.

Mr Dlamini said on Sunday that the training lay-off scheme could potentially save many more jobs if implemented effectively. It could help tackle the skills shortage, he said.

Ms Kahn said it was critical to link retrenchments to "up-skilling" workers.

"We have to try to make sure that where retrenchments are unavoidable, workers go off with some hope," she said.