South Africa is no stranger to strike action. Sadly, while workers have the right to strike, these often turn violent. Is this a risk that can be managed?

It’s been more than 15 weeks since the strike in the plastic convertors’ industry began over salary increases and benefits. With the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) seemingly leading the charge, the most recent report at the time of writing (January 21) is that talks had ground to a halt.

In the meantime, the strike has proved to be one of the most violent South Africa has seen in a while. The violence included physical assaults on non-striking employees (one was murdered) and company CEOs (one died as a direct result of the attack on his factory); attacks on non-striking workers at their residences, which saw houses burnt down and property damaged; 17 factories were petrol bombed, vandalised or looted (one was burnt to the ground); personal motor vehicles were set alight or severely damaged; and the property of companies not linked to this strike in any way were also targeted.

Gerhard Papenfus, chief executive of the National Employers’ Association of South Africa (NEASA), comments that this type of behaviour is likely to become more prevalent as trade unions fight to retain relevance.

“As resources increasingly come under pressure, with heightened desperation, the pressure on employers will increase in years to come. Apart from preparation in many areas, employers will have to mentally prepare for a prolonged struggle,” he suggests.

However, while the role trade unions play requires deep exploration, the causes of strike action cannot be placed only on them. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) notes that there are various causes involving all role players.

On the part of the employers, these could include an unhealthy organisational culture, an autocratic management style, outdated workplace practices or inequitable employment practices.

Strikes could result when either or both parties fail to show leadership, ignore the voice of the workers, have a poorly defined bargaining unit, or fail to learn from successive collective bargaining rounds.

“Accountability for industrial action must be apportioned between business and labour, and the risk can be mitigated through strategic and operational interventions involving both employers and trade unions,” the CCMA comments.

The commission adds that industrial action is an inherent risk associated with adverse consequences. How then can an employer, especially one operating in an industrial sector with union representation, mitigate the risk of a strike?

Naturally, it makes sense to ensure processes and procedures are in place to avoid a strike in the first place. These precautions include managing conflict and resolving disputes in the workplace, effective communication with staff, adopting a progressive bargaining paradigm and ensuring bargaining units are effectively constituted and represented, and institutionalising a commitment to peaceful industrial action.

However, according to the CCMA, if strike action does occur, there are key points to consider before, during and after the strike – as outlined in the table below.

About The Author

Gavin Myers is the editor of SHEQ Management. He’s been with the magazine for seven years.

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