An Overview of the Trade Unions in South Africa

South African Flag

South African Flag. Image by Private Musings at en.wikipedia

It was only after the apartheid period that trade unions in South Africa were given the proper power they need to ensure workers are fairly treated. Trade unions are organizations that are created to protect the rights of labour workers vis-à-vis the interests of large corporations. In short a member of an accredited trade union is able to complain of unfair labour practices and get heard through the union: the result of intervention might include increased remuneration and better working conditions.

These rights in South Africa were cemented when the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) acknowledged and accepted selected trade unions into their decision-making arena. Nedlac was created immediately after the apartheid period in 1995 to ensure a balanced and fair working environment for all.

Nedlac consists of 4 groups: trade unions, business, government, and community. Labour representatives in Nedlac come from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Federation of Unions in South Africa (Fedusa), and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).

South Africa’s Trade Unions

Compared to the rest of the African continent, the top 3 trade unions in South Africa are the most disciplined and transparent. Initially, they set out to change the work environment from pre to post-apartheid. This means breaking down unfair practices and giving workers their fair remuneration. The most poignant of all achievements is the fact that today workers can discuss problems with the business owners which was only peripherally possible during the apartheid period.

The list of problems workers and trade unions bring to the table are:

1. Wages and Benefits
2. Work Conditions
3. Recognition of Unions
4. Retrenchment and Lay-offs
5. Deductions from Salaries

With the inclusion of trade unions like Nactu, COSATU, and Fedusa, wildcat strikes dropped dramatically compared to the number in the 1970s to 1980s. There are other reasons for the growth of business aside from the efforts of Nedlac. One of these reasons would be the Labour Relations Act.

The Labour Relations Act of South Africa

Basically this act provides a public service to all workers. They can raise, discuss, and settle labour disputes without fear of unlawful reprisal or “cloak and dagger” kind of situations. While there are only 3 large trade unions in the country, there are more than 17 in total. The others are not registered and do not have to be under the law.

The Act states that all trade unions must abide by an “issue only” labour dispute. In short, members and trade union organizations cannot go after a business owner on the basis of his personal attitude and non-business related activities. This is what makes the trade unions in South Africa very progressive and strong. They are listened to and given due recognition with regards to matters that affect their work and wages.

This isn’t to say there are no controversies surrounding trade unions. There are constant issues that create tension and put progress at risk. One of the first problems was in 1973 when the trade unions were not yet firmly established but mere pockets of small groups. A relatively small strike in Durban led to a city-wide protest and spilled over to other parts of country.

In 1983, trade unions linked with anti-apartheid groups and formed a political party, the United Democratic Front. After the 1994 elections, many trade union leaders were in position of power as members of the African National Congress.

Unfortunately, trade unions could be seen as playing a vital role in the stigmatising of business owners and managers as oppressive individuals bent on exploitation while enjoying the luxury of purchasing the property for sale in Bishops Court and buying expensive pet food online.

In an economy like South Africa’s, where entrepreneurship accounts for up 42% of the GDP, a primary aim of labour organisations should be to facilitate employee-employer dialogue and to foster mutual respect. Furthermore, trade unions have also been criticised as the power that they enjoy in terms of limiting the minimum wage can also be seen as contributing to the country’s catastrophically high unemployment rate.

Today, there is a growing protest against the proposed e-tolling system in Gauteng that will take effect on April 30. It basically tags higher tax rates for non-registered users of the transport network. Trade unions like COSATU feel that it is an underhanded way of getting people to register in order to use the roads and increase tax collection. Despite this opposition to government will, COSATU came out in full support of the party’s stance against the controversial “Spear of the Nation” painting. It doesn’t seem as if either congress will be encouraging its members to buy art in the near future.

The advantage trade unions in South Africa have is that the government and private sector are willing to listen to their side, and whatever the current dispute is, there is an open line of communication.