Finance union Sasbo plans to shut down bank branches on Friday in a protest against job losses and retrenchments. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Finance union Sasbo plans to shut down bank branches on Friday in a protest against job losses and retrenchments. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

The interpretation of a law requiring a secret ballot before unions embark on a strike is set to take centre stage in the labour court in Johannesburg on Wednesday in a case to prevent a shutdown of the banking sector.

Lobby group Business Unity SA (Busa) has approached the court in a bid to interdict finance union Sasbo, an affiliate of trade union federation Cosatu, from embarking on the planned shutdown on Friday. The union is protesting against job losses and retrenchments in the industry.

About 50,000 Sasbo members have confirmed they will down tools, general secretary Joe Kokela said, adding that the number is expected to rise as Cosatu has also called on its members to support the action.

The strike-ballot legislation came into effect on January 1 and unions were given six months to amend their constitutions to include the clause.

Unions have dismissed the legislation, saying it removes their democratic right to strike, with the National Union of Mineworkers of SA saying it plans to challenge the law in the Constitutional Court.

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said Busa’s attempts to use the courts to undermine the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) “and coerce workers into submission will fail”.

Job losses

“Cosatu has resolved to do more to hold the private sector accountable. The banking sector has been one of the most profitable sectors in the last two decades and they do not have a crisis of profits,” Pamla said.

Sasbo’s planned protest comes as the industry is battling job losses and is being forced to digitise operations as it tries to fend off competition from tech-savvy newcomers such as Bank Zero, TymeBank and Discovery.

Standard Bank, the second-largest bank in SA, has closed 91 branches, affecting 1,200 employees, as it realigns its retail and business banking delivery model with the demands of the tech revolution.

On Monday, the Banking Association SA (Basa) said Busa is seeking to stop the protest as Cosatu’s notice sent to Nedlac in terms of which Sasbo is planning to act “may not have satisfied the requirements for the action to be legally protected”.

It said the Nedlac notice was issued in August 2017 and should not be relied on in 2019.

Kokela rejected Basa’s argument, saying, “these are delaying tactics that will not succeed”.

Sasbo has filed opposing documents in the case, Kokela said on Tuesday.

THE BANKING SECTOR HAS BEEN ONE OF THE MOST PROFITABLE SECTORS IN THE PAST TWO DECADES. THEY DO NOT HAVE A CRISIS OF PROFITS

“One of their arguments is that they don’t believe we followed proper processes in filing for the section 77 notice [dealing with protest action].

“They are also arguing that we didn’t ballot our members,” he said.

The Labour Relations Amendment Act only requires the balloting of members when a union intends embarking on a strike, and this is done under section 64 of the law, Kokela said.

Nedlac notice

“We filed our application under section 77, which deals with protected protest action. If we wanted to go on a strike, we would have filed under section 64,” he said.

Kokela said the Nedlac notice issued in 2017 is still valid.

“You can use the certificate any time you want as long as it has not been enforced. There is no law that says you must use the certificate within a certain period.” 

Basa said protest action will not help to address the realities affecting the banking industry and “will further burden the economy and deter investment”. 

The Reserve Bank predicts growth of only 0.6% for 2019 and  less than 2% through to 2021.

Basa said SA banks are aware of the country’s high unemployment rate, which jumped from 27.6% to 29% in the second quarter.

Banks are expected to operate as usual on Friday, but in case of any unavoidable disruptions at branches, customers should use digital banking services, Basa said.

The SA Revenue Service said in the unlikely event of the protest action going ahead, contingency plans are in place to mitigate any negative effect on taxpayers and traders. 

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za