Du Plessis: No joy this Worker’s Day – jobs disappearing, layoffs growing | Fin24
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Du Plessis: No joy this Worker’s Day – jobs disappearing, layoffs growing

May 02 2016 11:35

By Gideon du Plessis*

The origin of Workers’ Day dates back to the so-called Haymarket affair of 1886 in Chicago when workers, who went on strike for an eight-hour workday, clashed with police and 11 people died in bloody riots. That same year happened to have been the year in which the largest gold deposits were discovered in South Africa, which led to the rapid growth of the South African mining industry.

In 2012, preceding the Marikana incident, this industry had provided jobs for 534 000 permanent miners; however, in 2016 this very same industry is characterised by a retrenchment bloodbath, with the mining sector shrinking to 487 000 workers.

According to retrenchment statistics announced by Solidarity last week, the mining industry has been hardest hit by retrenchments. A total of 29 261 miners out of an approximate

60 000 South African employees, who are facing retrenchment, are being affected.

However, the retrenchment figure is but a drop in the ocean compared with the number of voluntary and early retirement packages granted; jobs that have been frozen after workers had resigned or had been dismissed; the cancellation of the contracts of contractors and service providers as a result of downsizing by the client; a 2015 labour law amendment that entitle contract workers to be treated as permanent employees, if they have been with a company for six months, and employers have responded by dismissing their contract workers in large numbers; and the fact that hardly any new jobs are being created due to financial constraints, and economic and political uncertainty.

Read also: Gideon du Plessis: Mining strike pains. Is half a bread loaf better than none?

While it is the role of trade unions to protect workers and to negotiate better conditions of employment for them, the number of registered trade unions in the country has dropped from 485 in 2001 to 188 in 2016.

Trade union representation of South African workers has also dropped below 30%. According to Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the final quarter in 2015, trade unions were responsible for only 20.6% of wage settlements reached on behalf of workers at company level; 8.1% of the wage settlements were reached under the auspices of a bargaining council; 65% of South African workers received an increase based on employer discretion; and 6.3% of the workers did not get any increase. The vast majority of South African workers are thus left to their own devices in the workplace, but it also reflects negatively on workers’ trust in trade unions.

A study by Pierre du Toit and Hennie Kotzé on the confidence South Africans have in institutions that was published in their book, Liberal Democracy and Peace in South Africa (2011), confirms the lack of confidence in trade unions (Cosatu trade unions in particular). According to the research results, confidence in trade unions is ranked second last on a list of twenty state and non-state institutions. (Fortunately, confidence in churches tops the list at least.)

Read also: Solidarity: Mining stakeholders its worst enemy. Lacks serious leadership.

It is, however, not just in the interest of trade unions to increase their worker representation; employees, too, benefit from trade union representation, since, according to a 2007 study undertaken by the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, the annual increase received by employees belonging to trade unions is 10% higher than the increases granted to those not belonging to trade unions.

Secondly, the chances of employees to escape retrenchment or to receive a better retrenchment package increase drastically through trade union representation. On the other hand, trade unions are blamed for the high wage settlements they achieve, but that is only half a truth because any employer worth his salt would include a higher production target in a wage agreement.

Due to historical reasons the lowest percentage of trade union participation occurs among white South African workers, particularly given that the trade union world offered a political home to black South Africans during the apartheid era, in turn giving rise to their historical high levels of union participation, while their white peers did not need the political advantages a trade union offered.

As a result of the radical image most of the mainstream populist trade unions create, some employees are deterred from trade unionism, to the disadvantage of moderate, professional and responsible trade unions such as Solidarity. It is therefore sometimes a challenge to recruit employees who would benefit from trade union membership in these uncertain times.

The shrinking organised labour environment and the wave of retrenchments put a damper on this year’s Workers’ Day celebrations. Civil servants are almost the only ones who, apart from the odd promotion frustration, are enjoying relative job security and they offer trade unions a captive audience.

The irony is that, although it is not government policy to reduce the oversupply of civil servants through retrenchments, government policy is indeed largely to be blamed for destroying jobs in the private sector due to a socialist idea framework, poor service delivery and leadership, regulatory insecurity and corruption – all of which are hampering economic growth. The proposed mining charter is government’s latest job-destroying policy that would cost the country numerous job opportunities.

* Gideon du Plessis is the General Secretary of trade union Solidarity.

solidarity  |  jobs  |  labour  |  unions


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