The labour landscape in SA continues to shift with the entrance on Friday of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the second-largest labour federation after the ANC-aligned Cosatu.

Labour instability has been a key factor blocking the country’s investment potential since union rivalry contributed to the Marikana massacre of 2012. The entry of the federation will lead to heightened competition for union membership in workplaces across the economy.

It comes as the relationship between Cosatu and its ally, the ANC, was marred by increasing tension after the federation called on President Jacob Zuma to step down following a string of scandals that resulted in the party’s loss of three key metros in the 2016 local polls.

Saftu is set to launch in Gauteng with a membership of nearly 700,000. The Federation of Unions of SA, represented in the National Economic Development and Labour Council, has just over 550,000 and the National Council of Trade Unions has 400,000. Cosatu has 1.2-million members.

Two former Cosatu affiliates, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, are the new federation’s largest affiliates. The federation was registered and recognised by the Department of Labour on March 31 and consists of 23 affiliates, with an additional 16 unions in the wings, pending affiliation. Among them is the Cosatu-aligned South African Medical Association.

The federation acknowledges that workers are weaker when divided and that it will have to fight hard to recruit and retain members in the current economic environment.

The Labour Force Survey for the fourth quarter of 2016 " tells us that a scandalous situation exists where 62% of workers either don’t get regular increases or their increases are set by the employer alone", the Saftu steering committee report said.

" Only 22% of wages are set through collective bargaining and a mere 8% through centralised bargaining structures.

"As we launch the federation, only 28% of workers belong to unions. This means 72% of all workers do not belong to any union," it said.

Numsa took a resolution to form a federation ahead of its expulsion from Cosatu in 2013 — a federation that would be politically independent and focused predominantly on worker issues. The Saftu launch is a culmination of those efforts.

The federation’s steering committee report warned that politically, the worst-case scenario facing the country was protests similar to those that characterised the Arab Spring and a repressive backlash from the state.

However, the federation’s focus is largely on worker issues. It has questioned the rationale behind the proposed national minimum wage level, which is R20 per hour.

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