The suicidal and costly strike at South African Airways shows the limitations of the power of trade unions in the current employment dispensation. But, more importantly, it shows more vividly the limitations of South Africa’s labour regulations to foster a sustainable, accountable and more cordial labour relations.
A more sustainable labour relations regime would make employees feel they are part of the business, and partners with both management and the shareholders, all in the service of the customer. This would also end the violence against employers, non-striking employees, and the general destruction of property during strike action.
But workers can only feel they are part of the business when they are part of the decision-making process at the highest level, which is not the case in corporate South Africa. Let’s take the large businesses, be it the mining houses on whose back the economy was built, or the large state-owned enterprises that employ hundreds of thousands of workers, without whose co-operation the economy goes nowhere.
The legacy of apartheid saw employees merely as instruments in the hands of the management team, and the only thing that can be done with an instrument is to use it. An instrument is a tool in the hands of management, to be used to help the management team make a profit for the shareholder, and for management to extract its share of the profit through a bonus. The employees had to be satisfied with low wages as compensation for their labour.
The transition to democracy did go some way to change that. Not far enough, though. The legislation that emerged after 1994, particularly the Labour Relations Act of 1995, focused on securing the most important and basic rights for employees, among those the right to a predetermined working and knock-off time, meal intervals, regular annual and sick leave. The Basic conditions of Employment Act of 1997 solidified these gains, and entrenched the role of trade unions as representatives of the employees.
All of these, of course, were building on the solid foundation laid out in the Constitution, which gave every employee the inalienable right to join a trade union of their own choice.
The employers seem, in my well-considered view, to have gone a lot further than the Constitution and employment laws had envisaged by outsourcing their obligations to manage relations with their own employees to the unions. The is how we arrived at the tragic moment of the Marikana massacre, and many prior to that, and the many tragic incidents that will surely follow if corporate South Africa does not change its attitude and embrace labour.
The starting point would be for all companies to set aside a number of board seats — I would put the number at a third of the board seats. These should be qualified people chosen by the workers themselves, and must report directly to the workforce about the goings-on at board level. This would go a long way to eliminating the culture of mistrust among the workers and the company. Employees are the single largest block of stakeholders in any large company.
Having these representatives of the workers at board level would go a long way to removing the distrust between employees and employers as everybody would have access to the same information at the same time, and would certainly put paid to the foolishness that we saw at SAA, where two trade unions, the National Union of Metalworks of South Africa (Numsa) and the South African Cabin Crew Association, led workers out on industrial action.
This was to force a company they have known for decades was bankrupt to pay more wages when it could not cope with the current burden. This only helped bring closer an end to the misery of the taxpayers who have been forced by an incompetent government keeping a redundant airliner operational. Having labour representatives as part of the board would render these charlatans redundant. For if the union representatives were to apply a duty of care to the company as directors, they would not be able to go outside and do the opposite.
Having put that in place, the second reform the workplace needs is to hold trade unions more accountable to their members. It is not enough to force the unions to hold a vote, through a secret ballot for employees, to decide whether they can go on strike.
The law needs to be amended to make sure the unions will pick up the tab for the wages of the members during the duration of the strike. It’s time we saw trade unions for what they really are: capitalists in the business of making money providing a service to employed people. They are nothing more, nothing less. And as proper businesses, they take the money they charge their members and invest it with other companies. Why are they exempt from the full responsibility of their actions?
Take the SAA situation again. Not only did the employees who were misled into striking for eight days lose a quarter of their wages, they also had to suffer the indignity of not meeting their monthly bills on time as the company was only able to pay half their salaries due to insufficient revenue as a result of the senseless strike.
The worst may yet come for them. SAA has lost the trust of the flying public, and will not recover from the lost revenue. Of course, in countries where the rule of law is respected, the very trade unions who told people not to fly SAA because it was now dangerous would have been hauled before a court of law to face charges of incitement and sabotage.
The absurdity with workers losing a quarter of their pay is that the fatcats who led them on strike did not suffer that indignity. They continue to drive in the fanciest of German vehicles while enjoying the finest things trade union subscription money can buy.
Why should the financial burden of a strike fall squarely on the gullible workers who are misled by ambitious politicians and businesspeople masquerading as representatives of the downtrodden? BM
Sushi is traditionally eaten by hand and not with chopsticks.