In a 2018 report, known as a “Systematic Country Diagnostic of South Africa,” the World Bank expressed its concern over, among others, the state of labour relations in the country. Last year government showed, in the words of Pres Ramaphosa’s opening address at the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation’s Summit, that it took this part of the report seriously, calling on trade unions and employers to do everything in their power to normalise labour relations.
In the search for a solution one must look beyond the employer/employee/trade union relationship. The total labour relations system must be analysed, and this includes political, economic, social, technical and international developments, which together with government policies, determine the state of labour relations. It is my contention that external influences determine the state of labour relations.
The worst possible spillover effect of the political environment manifests itself in the labour relations field. In its extreme form, it comes in the form of corporate corruption arising from state capture, such as the Bosasa and VBS matters, and various other examples of poor corporate governance such as what has happened at KPMG and at the Gupta mines. This corruption has already destroyed thousands of jobs and it has created an unhealthy climate for labour relations.
What is even more extreme is the way in which violent service delivery protest action and a political inclination to remove opponents from society affect labour behaviour. For example, a University of Zululand professor was killed in December 2018 after he had exposed an alleged PhD syndicate. In addition, the CEO of the Guptas’s JIC Mining Services was recently shot dead as a consequence of a labour dispute. Several employees have also been killed in strike-related incidents during recent strike action at Gold Fields and Sibanye-Stillwater. If the rule of law is not effectively enforced outside the workplace it would be even more difficult to do so in the workplace, and violent crime will escalate.
Moreover, the shameful behaviour of certain politicians in Parliament is inspiring younger trade shop stewards at shop floor level, in particular, to be as militant in company boardrooms. Such shameful parliamentary behaviour promotes improper workplace behaviour.
Although not to such an extreme extent as the above, new technology is also a major destroyer of jobs. According to a 2018 Accenture Report, 35% of jobs in South Africa are threatened by automation related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). However, the World Economic Forum forecasts that 41% of the jobs in South Africa could be automated. The “dubious” good news for us, and for the rest of Africa, though is that the 4IR depends on reliable power supply, which Eskom cannot offer – this means that it will take longer for the 4IR to happen here, but it also means that most of the 4IR jobs would be created elsewhere in the world while our power utility is in ICU and job creation is hamstrung as a result.
On the other hand, the 4IR requires a smaller, yet better trained workforce where critical skills will provide job security. A more flexible and decentralised workplace will be a further consequence and trade unions will have to prepare for a decrease in collective workplace issues as employees’ needs will centre around training and the impact of technology on their daily lives. Trade unions that cannot switch from a collective to an individual member service model will become extinct along with routine jobs, and in the process, trade union officials will end up on the streets together with their members.
As far as the influence of government policy on labour relations is concerned, the impact of expropriation of land would be felt across all economic sectors because investors do not necessarily regard this issue as a land issue but as a threat to private ownership and proprietary rights. Its impact already makes itself felt in the mining industry where international mining houses such as AngloGold Ashanti and South32 are downscaling their interests in South Africa and are expanding beyond our borders. A long list of even more anti-investor policies is in the pipeline. This could result in a credit rating downgrade, which would ultimately hit the unemployed and low skilled workers hardest, thus increasing social decay.
The international impact of our government’s foreign policy (which is pro-China and anti-Trump) on labour relations can be seen in the hijacking of industry by the Chinese. This means that projects are snatched away from local business and with it comes an influx of Chinese workers into the country. Although Trump deserves it, a slap on the wrist from South Africa just reinforces his protectionism approach which is particularly detrimental to job creation in the poultry, steel, sugar and automotive industries.
The examples referred to are just some of the examples that illustrate the impact of external factors on labour relations. Although trade unions and employers no doubt have a duty to practise better labour relations, the foundation for normalising labour relations lies largely at a political and government level.
2019 is an election year, and political parties will have to realise that their contribution towards stable labour relations will ultimately mean more to their supporters than empty, populist promises that raise expectations and increase instability.
Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary