OPINION | How Germany resolves conflict between unions and employers: Lessons for SA

Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) members take part in the recent march in Qwaqwa. Photo: Paseka Modisadife
Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) members take part in the recent march in Qwaqwa. Photo: Paseka Modisadife

Labour relations can become a hindrance to progress if they are governed by mistrust and ideological warfare. But if trust, responsibility and clear rules reign, like in Germany, it can shape a country's social progress, writes Martin Schäfer.

I like oxymorons. The English and German language offer a great variety of them: whether it's "open secrets", "freezer burns" or "deafening silences". These are all contradictory terms that serve to perfectly describe life's inherent incongruities. Awfully good, so to say.

My favourite oxymoron only works in German though. It's called "Konfliktpartnerschaft" – literally a conflict partnership, or a partnership in conflict. What on earth does that mean? Rest assured – it does not mean "marriage", although many might believe that to be an appropriate description.

In actual fact, it describes nothing less than the system that has been ensuring Germany's economic success of the past decades. In Germany, trade unions and employer associations are termed "conflict partners" – or to phrase it more nicely: "social partners". This means they are setting wages and working conditions in a process of collective bargaining, mostly on the sector level. It also means that supervisory boards of large companies consist equally of shareholders and employee representatives. Workers have a say through works councils. And employers and unions are involved in many other political decision-making processes. This form of negotiation and cooperation is what has been labelled the "Konfliktpartnerschaft".

'Partnership' in this context refers to understanding, respect and – ultimately – trust, whereas 'conflict' refers to struggle, competition and dissent. In Germany, a special balance on this has evolved between employers and unions. Each side acknowledges the constituent role of the other. Both sides know that they will only move forward if they engage with each other and that they will benefit from each other's strength. That's crucial: "Partnership in conflict" is based on strength, not weakness. And it is based on a clear legal framework.

In a sense, this is an antithesis to the view that capital and labour, because of inherent conflicts of interest, are rigorously and inevitably pitted against one another in an epic class battle.

It's true, labour relations can become a hindrance to progress if they are governed by mistrust, finger-pointing and ideological warfare. But if trust, responsibility and clear rules reign, labour relations can shape a country's social progress, the welfare of its citizens and its economic growth. There probably is hardly a country in this world where industrial workers are better off than in Germany.

Last month, Germany's key social partners were in South Africa to debate this question with their South African counterparts. It was a unique experience. It is not often that you would see the leaders of the German employer and union confederations travelling together. Peter Clever, member of the executive board of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA) and Reiner Hoffmann, chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) held a series of workshops with their South African counterparts to discuss the potential and limits of social partners shaping labour markets and social policy.

It was clear in all the debates that many of the challenges South Africa and Germany face in the labour market are similar. What are the potential benefits of cooperation between trade union confederations and employer associations? How can we address common challenges such as the future of work, the 4th Industrial Revolution and the transformation of the energy sector?

I believe it is crucial that social dialogue is based on the shared interests of all parties involved. In the German case, this is defined by a consensus on a competitive social market economy with its high export orientation in order to achieve a high level of employment. Hence, productivity is not a foreign term to unions; while decent work and high investment in professional education are no foreign terms to employers.

One main feature of the system is: It ensures that politicians do not have to get involved in everything. Who would contest that this is an advantage. But what are the disadvantages? Well, we know that wage talks can sometimes become very heated. But experience shows that shared responsibility develops: The employees' side has to decide what is important to them. Is it training? Safeguards for today's employees? Or responsibility for those who are currently out of work? Equally, the employers' side has to decide whether short-term profits are more important than long-term stability and industrial peace.

In South Africa and Germany alike, both unions and employers face the challenge to get young people into work and integrate them into the labour market.

In Germany, a dual system of vocational training is helping in that endeavour. It has been adapted across the world – with some firms also applying it here in South Africa. In Germany, after graduating from school, more than half of our youngsters start an apprenticeship instead of an academic career. The majority of them are trained in the dual system for two to three years – meaning they attend a vocational school for one or two days a week and learn on the job the rest of the week. Cooperation between unions and employers is in effect on all levels of this dual system: from legislation to the administration of final exams.

It is a "conflict partnership" that works. But it is also a partnership that has to be actively confirmed, re-assessed and updated all the time. Trust needs to be built between the partners, responsibility must be shared, new paths explored.

Germany's social partners stand ready to extend the dialogue with their South African counterparts – to assess what we can learn from each other and how we can further deepen cooperation in the crucial fields of labour and social policies.

If the outcome is a constructive dialogue without any freezer burns, deafening silences or crash landings, this oxymoron lover would be terribly happy. But that, of course, is an open secret!

- Martin Schäfer is German ambassador to South Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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