The Essential Services Committee has determined that school managers and support staff are not essential services, effectively upholding their right to strike.

However, it has declared a small group of services provided at boarding schools to be so, in order to protect pupils in the event of industrial action.

Only boarding house parents, sanatorium services and security at boarding schools have been designated essential services.

The Labour Relations Act defines an essential service as one that, if interrupted, would endanger the life, personal safety or health of all or part of the population. Workers deemed to render essential services have a limited right to strike. The act established the Essential Services Committee, which determines which services are essential. It has declared 18 services to be such, including air traffic control, blood transfusion services, firefighters and emergency health services.

The committee’s latest decision, handed down on November 5, follows an investigation requested by the DA to limit teachers’ right to strike.

The DA sought to have a minimum service level declared for schools, which it said would ensure pupils were safe and secure during a strike. It wanted school principals and other senior managers to be available during strikes to ensure learners were properly supervised, said its deputy education spokeswoman, Nomsa Marchesi.

The party would decide whether to appeal against the decision or pursue other avenues to try to improve the safeguards for learners when teachers went on strike, she said.

Wildcat strikes posed more of a problem than protected strikes, as parents did not have sufficient warning to make plans for their children.

“A large number of learners are left unsafe during wild-cat strikes,” she said.

The ANC has previously called for teaching to be declared an essential service, but the proposal was shot down by teacher unions, which described it as unconstitutional.

The committee said there was no basis in law to designate basic education as an essential service or to limit or prohibit the right of principals and deputy principals to strike.

“Any legislation, let alone an essential services committee designation, declaring basic education an essential service may well be challenged in the courts and ILO [International Labour Organisation],” it said.

In terms of international law, the possible long-term consequences of teacher strikes did not justify their prohibition, and it could not override SA’s international obligations, it said. School managers alone would not be able to ensure the safety of learners, given their numbers, it said.

The committee said catering and cleaning services in schools were not to be designated essential services because in the event of a protected strike, there was time to make alternative plans

Its decision was welcomed by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), which said the DA’s submission was an attack on collective bargaining and labour peace.

“Any attack on these is a promotion of anarchy and disorder, which will lead to unsafe environments for our learners,” it said in a statement.

Sadtu said the DA had wasted tax-payers money by calling for the essential services committee to investigate the matter, and had no regard for labour rights.