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Labour relations 2017: Who’ll strike, settle, retrench? Gideon du Plessis looks ahead

If South Africa’s political shenanigans in 2016 got your blood pressure soaring, there’s good news for you: 2017 is set to be a little calmer when it comes to labour relations – though far from boring. That’s according to Gideon du Plessis, secretary general of Solidarity, who has analysed negotiations between employers and employees, highlighting where the tensions are likely to be most acute in 2017. Sparks could fly in the mining sector, which has already lost jobs – and there are more workers to be shed. Faction rivalry is set to escalate ahead of the 2017 ANC conference, says Du Plessis. Also expect #FeesMustFall protest action to continue to characterise life at South African universities and anti-white capitalist sentiment to continue to infuse political debate across society. Unionists will be in the headlines a lot in 2017, as they capitalise on opportunities to promote themselves. This includes Zwelinzima Vavi, who is launching a new union movement. – Jackie Cameron

By Gideon du Plessis

labour relations
Gideon du Plessis, General Secretary, Solidarity. He says slackening of tensions in labour relations are to be expected in 2017; labour relations scene would be far from boring though.

Slackening of tensions in labour relations to be expected in 2017; labour relations scene would be far from boring though.

The shock of large-scale retrenchments that followed in the wake of prolonged strikes and the shadow of a credit rating downgrade that loomed large over the country had a mitigating effect on labour relations this year. For example, major wage negotiations in the platinum sector and the automotive industry with Amcu and Numsa respectively went fairly smoothly compared to what it used to be in the past. Also this year, much effort went into establishing a minimum wage and achieving a secret strike ballot at Nedlac – all of which is aimed at appeasing credit rating agencies.

In 2017 labour relations should continue in the same, less volatile vein not only because the threat of junk status has not vanished but also because fewer wage negotiations will take place during this year as many long-term agreements are currently in place and they will only expire after 2017.

Wage negotiations that will be prominent in 2017 are those in the chemical sector, as well as negotiations at ArcelorMittal, Mango and Comair. Sparks could fly in negotiations at Sibanye Platinum’s new Kroondal Mine where Amcu will want to sound a warning about the company’s future downsizing plans at mines recently acquired from Anglo Platinum where Amcu is the majority trade union.

Furthermore, tensions are already running high after the seven coal companies, which have been part of collective bargaining under the auspices of the Chamber of Mines for decades, have indicated that they have terminated the mandate given to the Chamber to negotiate on their behalf. Consequently, negotiations would have to take place at company level in 2017. This process was initiated by the major players, Anglo American Coal, Exxaro Coal and Glencore, which contend that when negotiations take place at a collective level smaller companies’ inability to meet the unions’ wage demands leads to strikes. The major companies are hit hardest by a strike, and this while they can afford a bigger increase but are restricted by the collective bargaining model. This development has the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) hot under the collar as the coal negotiations at the Chamber constituted a major platform for a show of force by NUM which has become of key importance now that their arch rival, Amcu, no longer enjoys recognition in the coal sector. NUM General Secretary David Sipunzi recently announced that the trade union had to become more militant, and decentralisation developments already offer a platform for NUM that is threatening mining companies behind closed doors with radical actions should they not reconsider their stance.

Should the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC), notwithstanding the major problems it is experiencing due to financial mismanagement, still exist next year, it would be the largest bargaining forum in 2017. This council is currently facing liquidation applications and the mutual strife among affected parties heightens chances of an implosion of this council. Meanwhile, some MEIBC employer organisations have already committed themselves to a more informal collective bargaining model for 2017 should the Council dissolve.

Members of South Africa’s Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) attend a rally in Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The mining sector should be the industry where most jobs will be lost next year due to the same internal and external factors that led nearly 50 000 job losses in 2016. The Mineral and Petroleum Board was tasked by the Minister of Mineral Resources to conduct a comprehensive study on the reasons for and possible solutions to retrenchments. All previous initiatives and proposals with regard to this matter formed part of the study and the report is almost ready for submission to the minister. Hopefully, this blueprint would limit retrenchments and bring about more stability in this sector.

Thousands of workers who were plunged into poverty as a result of the liquidation of Aurora and the Highveld Steel business rescue process are likely to receive relief in 2017. However, the future of workers at Lily Mine is still uncertain.

As far as next year’s populist trade union rhetoric is concerned, Zwelinzima Vavi, who is set to launch his new federation in March 2017 to counter Cosatu, together with other workerist trade union leaders will rally round news happenings in the country as a way of getting “media airtime”. Main themes for 2017 should revolve around the minimum wage; the ANC’s 2017 conference (this debate will lead to further faction rivalry in trade union ranks); the #FeesMustFall phenomenon; “anti-white monopoly capital”; and job losses.

Labour relations may well be less tough in 2017 than during the post-Marikana phase but boring it will certainly not be.

  • Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary.
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