Bargaining council representation down, despite increase in new unions, says Nxesi

22 September 2022 - 15:46
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Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi.
Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi.
Image: Freddy Mavunda/© Business Day

Employment and labour minister Thulas Nxesi says while union membership has increased in recent years, union representation in bargaining councils has dropped.

Nxesi was speaking at the CCMA’s fourth labour conference.

He said between 2013 and 2020 membership of registered unions increased from 3.25-million to more than 4-million, while the number of such unions rose from 203 to 220.

“My department commented that one of the unintended consequences of the freedom of association espoused by the 1995 Labour Relations Act was the proliferation of trade unions.”

Nxesi noted that issues concerning freedom of association featured in a conference session scheduled for Friday.

“Taken together with a prevailing ‘majoritarianism’, this [freedom of association] tends to mean members of splinter unions are not directly represented in bargaining chambers, with the result that the collective representation of workers is weakened. I have raised this matter with various unions, suggesting they need to find modalities to unite all workers, including those in splinter unions, difficult as that might be,” Nxesi said.

He said there was fierce competition for membership, to the point where some trade unions were using collective bargaining as a recruitment tool by portraying their rivals as sell-outs and resorting to intransigent tactics.

“I need to mention that this is an important area where the CCMA plays a role in facilitating the settlement of long and damaging strikes.

“Meanwhile, my department has witnessed an increase in the number of ‘unprotected’ strikes in recent years, pointing to a fraying of respect for collective bargaining institutions. Having said that, even the most militant-sounding union leader knows the value of registration and can be found lobbying the minister for implementation of certain aspects of the LRA. For example, the extension of collective agreements to cover non-members,” said Nxesi.

Nxesi said shifting dynamics included:

“Intensifying the digitalisation of the workplace and work processes — online administration and the rise of the ubiquitous virtual meeting. My understanding is that the CCMA has been able to respond creatively to these trends and reorganise its work accordingly. The pandemic and lockdowns also initiated and accelerated the ‘work from home’ phenomenon and we don’t yet know what the final consequences of that will be.

“There can be no doubt that the pandemic and consequent lockdowns were a major wake-up call for all of us.

“It also highlighted the changing nature of work, with the rise of the gig economy and precarious work, a phenomenon which is not really recognised in our labour laws and collective bargaining system, which is based on the simple dichotomy between employer and employees,” said Nxesi.

He added that lockdowns flagged major gaps in SA's social protection systems, particularly the UIF and Compensation Fund, which do not provide protection for workers in the massive informal sector and new forms of work.

“Of course, the two funds were at the centre of providing relief to millions of workers, their families and communities in every corner of the country. But the massive pressure, particularly on the UIF, exposed system challenges and weak financial controls, which we trust are now being addressed.

“I need to flag that the same processes of social dialogue were central to the development and implementation of the ERRP (Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan). Part of the plan addresses issues of job creation and preservation.

He said the CCMA played an important role in Section 189A applications for large-scale retrenchments, which allowed it a platform to offer facilitation services towards ensuring employment security through its job-saving strategy, saving many jobs. 


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