Battle looms over labour law changes

A curate’s egg. That is the best way to describe the amendments to the labour laws now passed by the National Assembly.

The modern version of this expression means that, while it is good in parts, overall, it is unpalatable. The one major good part, rightly hailed last week by labour federation Cosatu, is paternity leave that also applies to adoptive parents.

But this scarcely compensates for the overall thrust of the changes that will probably come into force by next year. Because the changes undermine the sole weapon workers have access to in their battle for improved wages and conditions: the strike.

Possibly emboldened by the rapid advance of automation and the growing number of desperate unemployed workers, business has seized the opportunity to try to bring labour under a social compact umbrella. This is seen as essential in the face of the ongoing global economic crisis.

Industrial disputes are seen by business and by government, itself the largest employer in the land, as an impediment to economic growth and stability. This is the logic of a mad and competition-powered, profit motive merry-go-round. It is spinning out of control, spewing surplus production while destroying livelihoods and the environment.

But workers have the constitutional right to strike, which is also upheld by International Labour Organisation conventions. So strikes cannot be banned. Workers cannot be sacked or otherwise victimised for going on a legally protected strike.

And herein lies the catch – there are provisions that have to be met before legal protection is granted. Legislation, passed by government, can therefore make it easier or harder for workers to exercise their right to withhold labour.

There also exists a myth, apparently widespread in business and government, that workers impulsively go on strike, often for no good reason. But strikes are almost invariably an action of last resort because, while business is affected, workers usually suffer much more due to the loss of wages.

But the withholding of labour can be a powerful instrument. As has been pointed out, if every worker everywhere suddenly stopped work, the world as we know it would stop. But if every company director spent a whole day – or even a week – playing golf, the only problem might be congestion on the golf courses.

This point highlights the fact that the interests of bosses and workers are not the same and never can be. Yet, perhaps in desperation triggered by the economic crisis, government and business persist in trying to foster the myth that employers and employees share common goals and interests. This is the rationale for the social compact.

The “we are all in the same boat” argument was made in Britain 40 years ago and failed dismally, as it has wherever else it has been tried. The lesson should have been learnt that there are three ways within our economic system that government can deal with trade unions – either crush them by banning and so on, incorporate them as conveyor belts for the governing party, or accept the reality of having to manage inevitable tension, hopefully as fairly as possible.

It has been argued, with considerable justification, that the present government has always tended to favour the employer position. This dates back to the introduction of the Labour Relations Act in 1995.

It incorporates a clause allowing for “replacement labour” when workers are on strike. This was the unpalatable “scab charter” part of generally sound and sensible legislation.

Along with the latest proposals, some unions have rediscovered the existence of the “scab” clause. It will doubtless become part of what promises to be a bitter labour law battle.

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