Saftu strikers in Johannesburg. File photo: PENWELL DLAMINI
Saftu strikers in Johannesburg. File photo: PENWELL DLAMINI

The government painted a grim picture on Tuesday of the country’s state of labour relations, with the number of strikes reaching a high in 2017.

The annual strike analysis is drawn up from data collected by the Department of Labour from employers and trade unions after strikes and lockouts.

There was, however, a silver lining, with the report indicating that the majority of the strikes were protected, meaning trade unions were beginning to abide by the law by seeking strike certificates before embarking on the action.

The number of strikes rose 8% from 122 in 2016 to 132 in 2017 as employees struggled to keep up with inflation.

Labour department director-general Thobile Lamati said the increase was the “highest recording in the history of our strike monitoring”.

The number of working days lost increased by 1.5% to 960,889 from 946,323 in 2016. Disputes over wage demands, bonuses and other compensation benefits were listed as the main reasons behind the strikes.

Not only was 2017 a record year for the number of strikes, but far more people were involved in strikes than before — at 125,125. Most of the strikes were protected at 52%, unlike in 2016 when 59% of the strikes were unprotected.

Labour analyst Tony Healy said this was good news, considering that protected strikes were largely more peaceful than unlawful action.

Recovering lost wages 

However, he raised concern about the increase in the number of strikes.

Healy was worried about the “perception” that industrial action was worth the price that “needs to be paid” when evidence suggested the opposite, with workers losing out on wages more than their gains.

“It can take you years to recover the wages lost during a strike when you compare it to the improved employer offer resulting from the strike. When you strike for two months for half a percent increase, it has not been worth your while and it’s a Pyrrhic victory,” he said.

The report showed that despite employers having been able to settle wage increase demands, not a single one was able to meet initial proposals tabled by unions. Cosatu spokesman Sizwe Pamla said the labour federation was not shocked by the report, adding that stagnating wages and worsening working conditions, among other factors, had forced workers to resort to strike action.

Cosatu-affiliated unions the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union and the South African Municipal Workers’ Union had the highest number of participants in strikes.