CAPE TOWN — In this highly constructive and critically-timed blueprint for effective labour relations, Solidarity’s Gideon du Plessis, reminds us of the basic tools needed to achieve and maintain peace at the workplace. Given that both our cost of labour and volatile ongoing industrial relations are cited by rating agencies and international companies as among the major reasons for us being a credit and investment risk, a refocus on the basics is of inestimable value. We’re so focused on the brazen State looting and capture that we sometimes neglect the vital other areas. Du Plessis looks at the common ground where unions and management can build pragmatic relations while remaining in healthy tension and staying faithful to their core functions. He singles out five core areas for this; regular Occupational Health and Safety meetings, aggressively intervening with your labour forces’ growing debt challenges (ready fuel for strikes) and financial literacy counselling, recognising all unions, turning employees into shareholders and creating consultative forums. It may often look as if we’re tunnelling through the centre of the earth to reach the moon, but we can create and maintain escape shafts, he says. – Chris Bateman
By Gideon du Plessis*
Labour peace possible without fighting
Emerging market expert Mark Mobius of Franklin Templeton Investments has been advising investors for some time now about the South African investment environment. In his latest communication Mobius focuses on those key economic issues in South Africa that are of concern to him. Among other things, he refers to the education system, immigration, infrastructure, inequality, land reform and labour relations. Mobius’s concerns about labour relations are in line with the opinion held by credit rating agencies and investors at the World Economic Forum that, ultimately, ongoing labour unrest creates an unstable and unproductive work environment.
In part, labour relations are a power play between employers and trade unions, and to restore the balance, fire is often fought by fire. However, in essence labour relations are about “relations” and for this reason positive interventions are the appropriate way to achieve labour peace.
Apart from sound communication there are five ways in which labour relations can be improved in a constructive manner:
- Focus on safety
In the first place occupational health and safety (OHS) initiatives can be used to build and promote relationships between role players. When it comes to the common goal that employees must return home safely every day employers and trade unions are of the same mind. This common goal not only puts employers and trade unions on the same side, but opposing trade unions also have this safety objective in the workplace in common.
Anglo American is setting the example in this regard as the company has established a tripartite forum for OHS matters. In this forum the company’s top management and that of the Chamber of Mines meet with trade union leaders and senior safety inspectors of the Department of Mineral Resources on a quarterly basis as a so-called principals’ forum to discuss OHS matters. The same tripartite grouping visits Anglo’s mines every year in what is known as a “visible felt leadership” initiative. This brings about a more cooperative relationship between all role players, ultimately promoting sound labour relations.
- Assist workers with debt challenges
In the second place, a realisation has set in that blue-collar workers’ high debt levels are a contributing factor when it comes to making excessive wage demands, and that although wrong, workers’ desperation for more money could fuel violent strikes. This insight offers an opportunity to reduce tension during wage negotiations.
Capitec recently found that the salary income of the bank’s clients who are entry level miners has come down over the past three years due to a decline in mining productivity. As a result, overtime and production bonus payments have been reduced, and workers have incurred debt to survive. In response, many mining houses like Anglo American Platinum have engaged the services of debt counsellors and experts to manage the debt of their workers and to institute legal action against institutions that have unlawfully exploited workers. In this way, the financial stress of the workers is being alleviated.
Financial literacy programmes, with Sibanye Gold at the forefront, have also been launched to enable workers to manage their personal finances better and to realise the importance of reinvesting pension money when there has been a change of employer. An added benefit of the programme lies in the fact that workers would now better understand a company’s financial presentation and arguments during wage negotiations
- Recognise all trade unions with a significant interest at a workplace
In the third place, trade union rivalry has become a major reason for labour unrest since the Marikana incident as employers set thresholds for trade union representivity and the trade union which boasts the most members receives most of the privileges or enjoys sole recognition. A way of defusing tension in labour relations in instances such as this, is that employers, as AngloGold Ashanti had done, recognise all trade unions considered to be significant role players, granting them equal organisational rights – then there would be no reason for trade unions to fight among themselves and with the employer for recognition.
- Turn employees into shareholders
Fourthly, an employee share ownership plan (Esop), linked to production targets, profitability and employee presence, can deter workers from going on strike or from staying away from work unlawfully as such action will inevitably impact on their remuneration.
- Create a consultation forum
Finally, an effective consultative forum should be created where employee representatives and trade union leadership meet quarterly with a company’s top management to discuss strategic matters and unresolved grievances. In this way, the salary negotiating agenda will not be cluttered by other burning issues, and a forced retrenchment process would not come as a surprise to trade unions.
Healthy labour relations are possible and are urgently needed as it will create a situation in which investors and credit rating agencies would be more positive about the country, and companies would again launch capital expenditure programmes, ultimately creating job opportunities and giving trade unions the opportunity to recruit more members.
- Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary.