Honest dealing or mutually assured damage?

Posted on March 15, 2013


South Africa’s annual wage bargaining — some say, strike — season has begun. In a series of conferences this week, the various sides got together to decide on their strategies and to plan the tactics they intend to follow as the hard talking gets underway.

At the same time, the KwaZulu Natal high court in Pietermaritzburg handed down a ruling widely misinterpreted as undermining the extension of collective agreements on minimum wages. In fact the judgement, almost certain to be appealed, refers only to 2010 wage agreements.

However, news of this ruling and the spread of instantly propagated myth surrounding it, boosted campaigners arguing for a wages free-for-all. It was grist to the mill of the Free Market Foundation that has launched a court challenge in Gauteng aimed at scuppering all bargaining councils.

These developments, coupled with the emergence of some worrying economic data this week should ensure that the talking this year will be particularly hard. It may also be particularly bitter if employers and unions retreat to their trenches of old and act in accordance with their traditional, and deeply ingrained, assumptions and prejudices.

Not that there could, or should, be any prospect of a toenadering (rapprochement) between bosses and workers. That would amount to a denial of reality.

In the existing system, the interests of workers and of employers are — and probably always will be — diametrically opposed. However, while the two parties exist in an adversarial situation, they also have a symbiotic relationship within the present environment, crudely put as: bosses need workers and workers need the jobs bosses offer. In the absence of an alternative system, this remains the reality.

The difference in interests is easily explained: employers need to maximise profits — in the case of public companies this is a legal requirement — for their owners and shareholders. Workers, on the other hand, want — and most often need — to improve their wages and conditions that are a cost on profits.

In spite of this, there are times when there is an identity of interest between employer and employee, an area of common ground on which the two sides can unite to fight a common cause. This applies especially with regard to cut-price imports that undermine local products, putting pressure on profits, wages and jobs.

But to establish such common — if temporary — interest requires good and honest communication between bosses, workers and unions. This is usually in very short supply.

Yet, in South Africa, everything from the ceramics and steel products industries to footwear, textile and garment producers have been badly affected by the way the industrial environment has been managed. Government’s free market orientation has meant increasing levels of joblessness and, more importantly perhaps, growing inequality. This is not to the benefit of locally-based employers or the workers they employ.

At all the pre-talk talks, the spectre of Marikana and the memory of De Doorns loomed large in the minds of the participants. These two, high-profile incidents have underlined strongly the dangers of inequality and the damage that can be done on both sides of the industrial divide if some level of common interest cannot be found, clearly communicated, and acted upon.

The fact that the initial R150 a day pay demand by farm workers was generally accepted as reasonable has also raised expectations throughout the labour movement. And the move from R69 to a R105 a day farm labour determination by government will certainly mean demands for at least equivalent increases by other low-paid workers.

Overall, however, there does seem to be an awareness that the economic environment, both globally and domestically, is much more fraught now than in previous years; that the old positions and rules of engagement may no longer be that relevant; that at times of perhaps mutually assured damage, common interests should be sought.

This was the message that came through very clearly in the pre-bargaining conference of the Motor Industry Bargaining Council (MIBCO) that took place in Boksburg 24 hours before the major federation conferences got underway. This multi-sectoral body, covering everything from fuel stations to auto manufacturing, put together an incredibly comprehensive briefing on Monday this week.

The inputs from experts such as economist Chris Harmse, Ian Macun of the labour department, trade union researcher Rudi Dicks and energy specialist Manny Singh, painted a clear picture of the troubled times that lie ahead. Some myths, such as the contention that pay has outstripped productivity, were laid to rest and Singh illustrated how the oil majors effectively squeeze service station operators.

It was an excellent example of what a pre-negotiation briefing should be: honest, open discussion. But, as speaker and Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration senior commissioner Afzul Soobedaar told the gathering: it would still be no more than a talk shop unless the facts presented were all taken on board, analysed honestly — and acted on.

In the present economic and social climate, he felt that interest-based negotiation should be the aim; that negotiators on both sides should try to develop innovative ways of dealing with their problems. This also entailed good communication between employers and employees and between union leaders and members.

But, as SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union general secretary, Andre Kriel, notes, many employers remain reluctant to give an honest account of their costs and profits. A number of other unionists also complain that many wage and conditions agreements — even sectoral determinations set down by government — are not adhered to. Nor are they enforced because of a lack of capacity in the labour department.

The primary onus for stability remains, it seems, with the employers. And there should be some understanding, given the current cost of living, that the demand by, for example, service station forecourt attendants for a 17 per cent pay rise is reasonable. Such an increase would mean R20 an hour or R900 a week, still a far cry from the estimated “living wage” of R4 200 a month.