South Africa

BANK STRIFE

Labour Court foils potentially damaging banking sector strike

Labour Court foils potentially damaging banking sector strike
The authours argue that South Africa's banks have a crucial role to play in social equity through ICT innovation. (Photo: Daily Maverick)

The Labour Court has upheld an application to prevent an unprotected strike in the banking sector scheduled for Friday 27 September.

The application to prevent the strike was brought by Business Unity South Africa, which argued on behalf of workers that the industrial action was unprotected because the certificate authorising it, issued in 2017, was outdated.

On Wednesday 25 September advocate Alistair Franklin, arguing for the applicants, asked the labour court to declare Friday’s planned mass action unlawful on the basis that the respondents had failed to adhere to section 77 of the Labour Relations Act.

Labour court Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker said in her ruling:

It is declared that the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu and the South African Society of Bank Officials, Sasbo, have failed to comply with the provisions of Section 77 (1) of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995.”

Sasbo’s planned strike was prompted by sweeping technological developments leading to restructuring and retrenchments in some of the biggest banks in the country. Cosatu-affiliated Sasbo contends that workers across the financial sector should be upskilled, not retrenched, so they can remain relevant in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) championed by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Sasbo is alarmed at the increasing reliance on technology, fearing many jobs will be shed in the process. Standard Bank announced in March 2019 that it would shut down 91 branches across the country. Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has argued that jobs might be lost, but many more would be created.

Sasbo boasts a 70,000 membership, with about 50,000 members in the banking sector. Many of its members cannot recall when last the industry in strike action.

The latest judgment, however, does not preclude Sasbo from filing a fresh application for a strike with the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). The application might take a few more months to come to fruition which means it might coincide with the festive season when banks and other financial institutions are in a peak business period.

Sasbo, worried that automation and robotic advancements could lead to far higher numbers of job losses over the medium term, says the banking sector can avoid job losses through attrition, redeployment, incentivised retrenchment and retirement packages, among other options. Had the strike been given the green light, it may have gone down as the biggest strike in defence of jobs involving South Africa’s big banks.

Some bank employees told Daily Maverick that the labour court’s interdict was unfair to the financial and banking sector and Sasbo because it took a lot for them to strike.

I can’t even tell you when the last strike in this sector was. So, the way I see it Sasbo’s powers are being curtailed by this decision which has not taken into consideration that this is an industry that is highly exploited, but hardly engaged in strikes.

It was predicted that the planned strike might have had devastating consequences and could lead to an unprecedented cash crisis. Early in the week, Sasbo advised bank customers to ensure they have enough cash to sustain them through the planned strike.

Standard Bank said on Tuesday:

We are aware of the planned protest action this Friday 27 Sept 2019. We have effective business continuity plans in place to mitigate any impact and maintain best possible service levels should the protest go ahead. You will be kept informed should there be any disruption to our banking services. You will continue to have access to our digital channels, including our Banking App, Internet Banking, USSD and ATMs.”

While Sasbo is represented on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 4IR commission and says it is a supporter of digitalisation, it is opposed to retrenchments.

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said the labour federation had lodged an “urgent appeal” against the labour court decision.

We have written to Nedlac to say look, we are re-submitting again. If we win the appeal we will strike on 7 October. But if we don’t win, we will wait for Nedlac to reconvene the parties, but if they don’t, then we will again ask for another certificate of a resolution to strike, and again that will give us the mandate to strike. Because what they have done actually is to prolong things.

We have also noted the silence of the South African government in all this, a government that has supported the banking and financial sector.”

Veteran human rights lawyer Barney Pityana said it was time to take the national interest seriously, and “government and unions and business and industry work together to really promote the economy, preserve what is there and enhance what is possible. And, we are not going to be able to do that unless we create an environment that causes… economic activity to be sustainable”.

He added: “Unions depend not only on the people who are retrenched, but on people who are in the workplace. At the end of the day to be a unionist is to have people who are in employment.” DM

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