December 14, 2018

Labour Relations Amendment Bill a victory for business

Parliament has passed the National Minimum Wage Bill together with the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill. Most of the media is focusing on the minimum wage bill but the more draconian Labour Relations Bill is to offset monetary gains of workers and undermine the constitutional right to strike, writes EDDIE COTTLE.

To understand this draconian trajectory we should examine the background to the bills and its link to the mining industry and the role of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In the aftermath of the Marikana Massacre of 2012, Chamber of Mines chief negotiator, Elize Strydom, who had helped negotiate the introduction of strike ballots in Nedlac in an earlier draft of the LRA Amendment Bill was frustrated as it was subsequently removed from the act. The ballots were principally about failed wage negotiations between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and platinum producers.

Furthermore, Melanie Hart, an attorney at Fasken Martineau, a banking law firm, echoed Strydom’s frustration, and argued that “the feeling now is that such curbs on the right to strike would be beneficial” (McKay David, Mining Mix, April 9, 2014).

The amendments to the Labour Relations Act contain all the key changes as proposed by business.

The feeling by business to curb the right to strike is not related to high rates of industrial action, which averages 88 per year as compared to 66 per year in the 1950s. In recent years days lost due to industrial action has soared reaching a new historical average of 5,821,900 per year compared to 2,377, 878 days in the 2000’s. For business, especially mining, it has meant huge losses of income and similarly for workers in terms of wages. How were business interests especially mining interests to be secured with labour federations failing to compromise on changes to the right to strike?

After Ramaphosa resigned from Lonmin in 2013, he made his debut at the Labour Relations Indaba, 4 November 2014, this time as Deputy President of South Africa. Ramaphosa was swift and made it clear that he wanted to transform the labour relations environment arguing that the main challenge was to confront labour instability and wage inequality (The Presidency 2014). Ramaphosa, himself a businessperson worth R6.4-billion, had vested interests in the outcome of the negotiations. Business for the first time now had a dependable leader.

The negotiations at Nedlac between business, labour and government was held far from public scrutiny. Ramaphosa had managed to convince Cosatu and Fedusa that the introduction of the national minimum wage and the amendments to the LRA was a victory for both capital and labour. Ramaphosa achieved what highly paid professional negotiators could not achieve almost overnight. He effectively ensured a wholesale capitulation of labour leaders to bourgeois ideology that workers are to blame for violence and lengthy strikes, with little being said about the structural violence of the workplace, bad management practices or police repression. The introduction of a national minimum wage and changes to the LRA was in reality a completely one-sided affair. The post-apartheid industrial relations system was effective in reducing the number of strikes but not the number of days lost. The new dispensation heralded by Ramaphosa hopes to achieve a reduction in both of these.

The amendments (LRA) contain all the key changes as proposed by business. The introduction of measures that will delay and inhibit the rights of workers to embark on protected strike action, through increasing the number of days for conciliation from 30 to 35 days, the introduction of secret ballots, and advisory arbitration.

The strategic aim of the amendments is to take away the tactical advantage a given strike may have and in so doing fundamentally reduce the capacity of workers to win wage demands they have. In this sense, the new minimum wage bill was a political exchange for excessive prerequisites to strike and in so doing business hopes that its profit share will increase at the expense of workers and their families.

Quite contrary to the stated promise of these measures, inequality will increase, and strengthen the resolve of workers to fight back. Already the Department of Labour’s Annual Industrial Report (2016) indicates that there was an unprecedented increase in the share of unprotected strikes from 44% in 2012, 52% in 2013, 48% in 2014, 55% in 2015 and 59% in 2016. The percentage increase in unprotected strikes is also an important indicator of a change in the mood of the working class and shows the extent to which workers are bypassing both the trade unions and the industrial relations system to give effect to their demands.

The introduction of a national minimum wage and amendments to the LRA is a turning point in the labour relations architecture of South Africa and it is no surprise that a business leader, the President, led it on behalf of the mining sector. This is State Capture supreme. However, South Africa is sitting on an industrial relations time bomb. Just as workers fought draconian legislation in the past, they will do so in the future.

Eddie Cottle, Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), Rhodes University.

This article was first published by the Daily Maverick.

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