School teacher's desk. Picture: THE TIMES
School teacher's desk. Picture: THE TIMES

The DA is pushing for limitations to be placed on the right to strike in the education sector, saying school principals must be declared to perform an essential service.

Industrial action by teacher unions has become commonplace in South African schools, disrupting the functioning of the schooling system.

The ANC has previously called for teaching to be declared an essential service, a move that would effectively limit the right to strike. But this was shot down by teacher unions who described the proposal as unconstitutional.

In 2013, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said the party would "leave no stone unturned to make teaching an essential service ... Education must be a priority … when you disrupt education you are not threatening life and death, but you are disrupting the future prospects of the country".

On Thursday, the DA presented its essential service in education discussion document, which calls for limitations to be placed on the rights of principals to down tools.

"South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) members often enter schools illegally and harass pupils during their protests when there are no principals present and this needs to be put to an end," said DA MP and basic education spokesperson, Ian Ollis. "It is vital that principals and support staff at schools are declared an essential service as this will result in children being protected from the adverse effects of protest action."

The Labour Relations Act recognises the constitutional right to strike, but subjects the right to a number of limitations, including the provision that no person may take part in a strike if that person is engaged in an essential service.

"Strikes by teachers and other employees in the education sector have compromised our children’s constitutionally enshrined right to safety, health and even education. Learners are too often the casualties of this strike action, which sometimes becomes violent," said Ollis, adding that pupils in SA have lost more days to strikes than the other 14 countries participating in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality III study.

"While the DA supports the right of individuals to protest, it must not be at the expense of the safety, health and other rights of children. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has determined that it is reasonable to limit the right of certain education sector employees to strike and the DA agrees that this limitation is needed, given that our children are forced to suffer as a result of strike action by education sector employees."

According to the ILO, the right to strike might be restricted in the public service only for public servants exercising authority in the name of the state; or in essential services in the strict sense of the term (that is, services, the interruption of which, would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population).

"SA is a member state of the ILO and a signatory to the organisation’s relevant conventions in labour law. As a member, we cannot act contrary to the spirit and letter of these decisions and principles," Ollis said.

"To this end, the DA will meet with the Essential Services Committee on October 9 to request that they conduct a study on the posts of principals being considered essential services as they are empowered by the Labour Relations Act to make this a reality."

Sadtu could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

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