Labour Relations in South Africa: Integrity and Trust Could Make New Framework Come Alive
Labour Relations in South Africa: Integrity and Trust Could Make New Framework Come Alive

Labour Relations in South Africa: Integrity and Trust Could Make New Framework Come Alive

March 1 st 1997

Christian stewardship economics recognizes people not as autonomous resource owners, but as resource managers on behalf of God, and under His direction. It emphasizes personal and shared responsibility, and the coherence of economic with other human responsibilities. It rejects greed and envy, and mandates thrift, prudence, care for people and the environment, entrepreneurial imagination, and good, hard work.

In this view, businesses have the responsibility to:

  • generate work opportunities;

  • provide customers with needed goods and services;

    provide contexts for the acquisition of skills;

  • contribute beyond the scope of profit to their local community; and

  • become work communities characterized by teamwork and camaraderie.

The most immediate challenge facing South Africa is poverty. Of the economically active population, 30 per cent (4.2 million people) are unemployed, while an additional 1.7 million people work in the informal sector. Almost a quarter of all South African households earn less than U.S. $1,500 per year.

The new government—the African National Congress (ANC)—started off in its attempt to address poverty with the social democratic Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which set out broad ideals and the outline of a national agenda. The RDP has been enhanced—or maybe replaced—by a neoliberal macro-economic framework with the acronym GEAR (Growth, Empowerment, and Redistribution). GEAR for the first time firmly commits the ANC government to a market economy rather than socialist nationalization.

New labour legislation

Tito Mboweni, the new ANC Minister of Labour, has worked very hard to negotiate and prepare new labour relations legislation within the framework of the RDP and GEAR. Between February and September 1995, his staff processed 25 volumes of public submissions in preparation of a draft labour relations bill, which was subsequently negotiated with business and labour.

Early in this process, there were heated arguments around the inclusion of strikes and lockouts as fundamental rights in the new Constitution, eventually leading to the inclusion only of strikes. On December 13, 1995, the new Labour Relations Act was published in the Government Gazette to give effect to section 27 of South Africa's new Constitution, which requires the progressive realization of rights to health care, sufficient food and water, and social security for all South Africans.

The further purposes of the Act are to:

  • regulate the organizational rights of trade unions;

  • promote and facilitate collective bargaining;

  • regulate the right to strike and the recourse to lockout;

  • promote employee participation in decision-making;

  • promote simple procedures for the resolution of labour disputes;

  • establish a labour court and labour appeal court; and

  • simplify the registration procedures for labour and employers' organizations.

From a Christian perspective, two features of the new South African Labour Relations Act are particularly encouraging. The new Act explicitly intends to transform labour relations by replacing the prevalent adversarial approach with a co-determining approach, including joint decision-making by labour and management in larger businesses through workplace forums.

Conciliation Commission

To facilitate the shift from adversarial labour relations, the new Act establishes a statutory Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration. While the primary task of this Commission is to resolve disputes between employers and employees before these escalate to legal proceedings, it must also assist in the establishment of workplace forums, advise parties to disputes with regard to procedure, and oversee elections and ballots of trade unions and employers' organizations on request.

The Commission may also provide advice or training on the establishment of collective bargaining structures and workplace forums, the prevention and resolution of disputes and grievances, disciplinary and dismissal procedures, affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, sexual harassment, and the process of restructuring the workplace.

The Act provides for the appointment of commissioners to help resolve disputes between employers and employees. It also provides extensive, easy-to-understand guidelines (with flow diagrams) for the process of dispute resolution through the phases of conciliation, mediation, and arbitration. These processes must be fair and quick, with a minimum of legal formalities. Should these supposedly non-adversarial procedures fail, employers and employees have in some instances recourse to the Labour Court and Labour Appeals Court.

In terms of the new Act, workplace forums may be established in workplaces with more than 100 employees to promote the interests of all employees (union members or not) and to enhance efficiency in the workplace. Workplace forums must be consulted by the employer—with a view to reaching consensus—on the restructuring of the workplace (including the introduction of new technology and new work methods), changes in the organization of work, plant closures, mergers and transfers of ownership, dismissals based on operational requirements, exemptions from collective agreements, job grading, criteria for merit increases and bonus payments, education and training, product development plans, and export promotion.

Workplace forums must participate in joint decision-making on disciplinary codes and procedures, workplace rules not related to work performance, affirmative action programs, and changes to the rules of social benefit schemes. An employer must disclose to the workplace forum all relevant information needed for effective consultation and joint decision-making, although information need not be disclosed if it is legally privileged, subject to a law or court order against disclosure, confidential and potentially harmful (if disclosed) to an employee or the employer, or private personal information of an employee opposed to its disclosure.

Integrity and trust

The new labour legislation contains considerable promise for the renewal of the South African economy—provided that business and labour leaders have the vision, integrity, and skill to make the most of the new laws. They provide the framework within which the legacy of racially-based mistrust between employers (historically white) and employees (historically black) can be overcome. This framework allows for the establishment of true work communities, characterized by flexible team skills and a real sense of camaraderie, able to meet the challenges of the global economy in the next century.

The problem, however, is that this framework is not enough.

While the South African workplace is shaped by the twin false religions of pragmatic materialism (mostly among employers) and fatalistic paganism (mostly among employees), the promise of the new Labour Relations Act will not be realized even in part. Personal integrity and mutual trust are rare commodities in the South African market, and cannot be purchased with money or laws. It is exactly integrity and trust which are required if nonadversarial dispute resolution and joint decision-mak-ing are to succeed.

This impasse generates an opportunity for Christian leadership in the trade unions and employers' organizations of South Africa. There is a 2,000-year heritage of Christian thought and action with regard to economic practice, and a century of experience in Christian labour and employers' organizations on which to draw if Christians want to make a difference within the new framework for labour relations in South Africa. The Christian Labour Association of Canada is an example of this heritage and such experience. We pray that it is an example which will not go entirely unheeded.

Labour relations will always be legally regulated relations, and until the return of the Lord there will always be entrenched economic power relationships. In the likely event that mistrust and a lack of integrity continues to characterize labour relations in South Africa, the opportunity remains for Christian workers and employers to testify to the reign of God through the love of Christ, by the manner in which we take part in these processes.

Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.

Brian Sweetlove
Brian Sweetlove

Brian Sweetlove is a Human Resources Manager at a large parastatal company in South Africa.


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