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Reimagining the role of trade unions in a post-Covid-19 world


Mmusi Maimane is leader of Build One SA.

The fast-changing work environment, against the backdrop of the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis, requires that organised labour adopts an ‘adapt or die’ reality check. Agile unionism for the 21st century requires lean, streamlined systems that work with business in a mutually beneficial manner.

On 29 April 2020, just two days before Worker’s Day, one of the country’s biggest retail giants, Edcon, filed for business rescue. The company, which owns household brands such as Edgars, Jet and CNA, employs almost 40,000 people nationwide. In an already depressed economy, work opportunities for those whose jobs are on the line will be few and far between. 

However, of much greater concern is the nature of said jobs and their growing scarcity in a quickly digitalising consumer economy. In observing Workers’ Day this year, it is incumbent on trade unions to be introspective and reimagine their role in this ever-changing world.

Our country has a rich history of collective and organised labour, which more often than not intersected with, and played a crucial role in, the struggle against apartheid. The advent of democracy saw labour rights recognised and protected in section 23 of our Constitution. Even today, SA’s largest trade union, Cosatu, sits at the “right hand” of the ANC in the tripartite alliance, strongly influencing policy and governance, and representing millions of workers.

Unions’ role has largely been to protect workers, to advocate for higher wages and to act as a bulwark against excessive corporate power. This model has been largely successful for as long as human capital is required.

However, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world as we know it is fast changing – particularly the global economy and the workplace. While digitalisation and increasing technological advancement was steadily approaching on the horizon, Covid-19 has rapidly fast-tracked this process. In order to better prepare for and mitigate against the next “crisis”, business and industry alike are investing more in robots and hi-tech machinery, artificial intelligence and cloud computing. This at the expense of investment into their current workforce.

Jobs are changing, and fast. Some jobs are becoming obsolete, while new indirect and direct jobs are being created by technological advancement. The knock-on effect is predictable. More automation without reskilling and upskilling of current workers will lead to mass unemployment.

This changing environment requires an “adapt or die” approach and this applies equally – if not more so – to trade unions and organised labour. The reality is that long before Covid-19, union membership in SA has been on a steady decline. The country’s biggest union, Cosatu, shed over 300,000 members during the period 2015-2018 as the agenda of organised labour and the agenda of workers appear to be out of sync.

With an ever-changing, uncertain future on the horizon, many workers fear being left without transferable skills to obtain new jobs once their current jobs become a thing of the past. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), an estimated 75 million jobs may be disrupted by machines and automation in the next five years. Many workers are asking what their unions can do for them in such circumstances.

In 2019, a study by business consultancy McKinsey, entitled The future of work in South Africa: Digitisation, productivity and job creation, found that an accelerated adoption of digital technologies could triple South Africa’s productivity growth, more than double growth in per capita income and add more than a percentage point to South Africa’s real GDP growth rate over the next decade. Moreover, it would create an approximate net gain of 1.2 million jobs by 2030.

Indeed, reality cannot be ignored any longer. It is time to admit that power relations have changed, the political landscape has changed and most importantly, the global economy has radically changed. And if there was ever an opportune moment for labour to reinvent itself and evolve with the times, Covid-19 has provided such a moment.

Unions owe a duty of care to their members not to delay the inevitable, but to prepare for it. Not to attempt to slow down development and technological advancement in order to save current jobs, but rather to advocate for the upskilling and reskilling of workers, and to collaborate with business in innovating mutually beneficial approaches to the ever-changing, quickly digitalising new world of work.

The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has found strong evidence that union involvement improves the impact and sustainability of skills systems, and improvements of such. In truth, business needs labour in this endeavour. And so do workers.

In simple terms, agile unionism for the 21st century requires lean, streamlined systems that work with business in a mutually beneficial manner. The focus must be on how we reskill those already in the workforce to stop rapid job losses and rising unemployment.

I want to propose collective labour in SA follows the lead of their UK counterparts by advocating for the creation of a new worker upskilling agency.

“Unionlearn” is a government agency that works alongside the business to assist unions to develop, train, and upskill/reskill their members through a variety of adaptive and unique learning opportunities. Through this agency, 200,000 workers gain new skills each year, ensuring they are empowered and equipped for a developing world.

The same model should be followed in SA and funded in three parts: by the government via the labour department; by unions via membership fees; and by business via a reformed empowerment model. Moreover, as is with “Unionlearn”, its programmes and outcomes are to be evaluated by external, independent assessors such as business schools and universities.

While no silver bullet, it will mark a step in the right direction in urging collective labour to evolve and adapt, and to incentivise and encourage meaningful collaboration in a historically adversarial environment.

The time is now for collective labour and trade unions to adapt or die. They ought not to ignore the writing on the wall. DM


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