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Collective bargaining system not operating optimally – Nxesi


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Collective bargaining system not operating optimally – Nxesi

In this video, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi responds to concerns about violent strike action in South Africa.

25th May 2023

By: Darren Parker
Creamer Media Contributing Editor Online


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The system of collective bargaining is under pressure, characterised by an increase in trade union membership figures, yet reduced representation of trade unions in collective bargaining councils, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi said on Thursday. 

“The registration of more trade unions has not translated into the improvement of trade union figures in collective bargaining. However, the improvement of trade union figures tells us that, with a little bit of recruiting and organising, trade unions can up their membership figures,” he commented. 


Amid union representation in bargaining councils declining and collective agreements being the subject of ongoing legal challenges, Nxesi said that government noted the unintended consequences of its legal framework on freedom of association.

“This has resulted in a proliferation of trade unions, with different trade unions in the same sector competing for the same membership. At some stage, this phenomenon has weakened genuine trade unions. Some of these trade unions have used collective bargaining as a tool for recruitment and competition by making unrealistic demands to portray other unions as weak, thereby collapsing the collective bargaining process,” he said, speaking at the second day of the Metal Industries Collective Bargaining Summit, hosted by the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.


Nxesi noted that this scenario had played out in various sectors and constituted a behaviour that hurt collective bargaining across the economy.

He added that the tendency to pit organised and unorganised labour against one other was not helpful.

“Organised workers who have barely achieved a living wage do not comprise some kind of labour aristocracy – and weakening this grouping will not lead automatically to improvements for the poor on the margins of society and the labour market. It may even do the reverse,” he warned.

Nxesi noted that organised labour had been losing ground over the past decade, and that it sought to strengthen its position in the collective bargaining system.

“The key to trade union strength is unity, and of course numbers, which, in turn, relies on effective organisation,” he said. 

Nxesi said that government’s view was that a “winner takes all” approach would make everyone losers. 

“As a general rule, flexibility in difficult times remains critical to sound collective bargaining and winning at any cost is destructive for the survival of the system,” he said.

He emphasised that collective bargaining was a dynamic system informed by its environment, and that parties who tabled proposals that did not reflect reality were unhelpful.

“This is the beginning of a slippery slope leading to prolonged strikes, devastating the already battered economy – not to mention the family finances of the strikers – and causing job losses. When we engage in collective bargaining, we must be mindful of our environment and our realities. This will help us avoid an impossible fight and then we end up agreeing to something that we could have agreed on before the strike,” he said.

Nxesi also bemoaned a lack of compliance with legal requirements by many labour organisations.

“Compliance with legal requirements is intended to promote democracy, good governance, and accountability and protect members against abuse by officials. Failure to comply allows individuals to use organisations for personal gain,” he noted.

At the summit, significant concern was expressed by several speakers and delegates about the rising incidences of violent strike action with little to no consequences for the perpetrators.

“We must not engage in destructive strikes. Sometimes workers can be easily irritated. But still, it does not justify violence, the destruction of property and even killing sometimes. it's not helpful. We must condemn violence. In fact, there will come a time when we have to criminalise destruction, we have to do that,” Nxesi said.

He noted that violent strike action perpetuated economic hardships both in the short and long term, as businesses were destroyed and forced to close their doors, leading to more job losses.

However, insofar as the metals and engineering sector was concerned, Nxesi said there was hope.

“From the standpoint of this sector – both the employer organisations and organised labour – It would appear that there is still life in the old dog of centralised bargaining. I am aware that some of the smaller companies are not so happy. However, for marginal companies who genuinely cannot pay the going rate, they can apply for an exemption,” he reassured.

He noted that the same applied for all aspects of labour legislation, such as the national minimum wage and requirements of the Employment Equity Act.

Nxesi acknowledged the complaint that collective bargaining did not do much to help the poor, although he contested what the term “poor” referred to.

“The system was not primarily designed to address the needs of the poorest. Rather the system was designed to protect and strengthen the rights and conditions of workers in the labour market. It largely achieved that, to a point,” he said, noting that well-organised unionised sectors were in the lead. However, he acknowledged a spill-over benefit to less organised workers.

The Minister insisted that many of the workers in low-level employment positions could be considered poor, especially since their wages had to support, on average, eight dependants each.

However, many other categories of poor people remain excluded from the industrial relations system. These include the unemployed, those working in the informal sector, as well as the “atypical, precarious and gig workers” – which are excluded from the very definition of employee/worker in the relevant legislation. 

“This phenomenon was highlighted during the pandemic when the stark reality of the exclusion of these categories from the social protection system was all too evident. It was at this point that government had to initiate the Covid-19 social grants – perhaps a reminder that poverty is an all-of-society responsibility,” Nxesi said.

He said that the matter of exclusion from social protection safety nets has since been taken up by the National Economic Development and Labour Council.

“We are in the process of reviewing our labour market policies – with proposals from government, organised labour and organised business. We anticipate proposals during the current year,” Nxesi said.


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