People queue at an Absa ATM in Oxford street, East London. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
People queue at an Absa ATM in Oxford street, East London. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

South Africans will only know on Thursday if a planned strike  touted to shut down the country’s banking sector will go ahead on Friday.

Finance union the SA Society of Bank Officials (Sasbo) is protesting against job losses and retrenchments, while union federation Cosatu intends holding national protest action against job losses and retrenchments in October.

Labour Court Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker is expected to hand down her ruling on the legality of the strike, called by Sasbo and its parent Cosatu, at 10am. 

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Lawyers representing Business Unity SA (Busa), Cosatu and Sasbo battled it out in court on Wednesday in their bid to convince Rabkin-Naicker to rule in their favour. Busa wants to stop more than 5,000 members of Sasbo from going ahead with their planned action on Friday.

The main focus of arguments on Wednesday was the Labour Relations Act’s section 77, which deals with protected protest action. This was issued to Cosatu by the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) in 2017, but was never enforced.

Advocate Alistair Franklin, representing Busa, submitted that the notice could not be relied on in 2019. He argued that it was never the intention of the legislation to be put on ice then “dusted off years later” to be enforced. He said the protest — which he said would be “very disruptive and damaging to SA” — would be in breach of section 77 should it go ahead, and questioned why no action had been taken by the respondents in the interim to enforce the notice.

However, Advocate Daniel Berger, for Cosatu, argued that the section 77 notice issued in 2017 remains current and valid. He said the issues raised in 2017 are still prevalent in 2019. He said “waves upon waves” of retrenchments are still going on unabated, while CEOs take home hefty salaries and bonuses. “Nothing’s changed ... These issues remain pressing and have only gotten worse.

“Busa said Cosatu can’t put the section 77 notice in its pocket and pull it out when it wants to. Why should that [notice] go stale? [It remains valid] as long as the issues it raises remain current.” 

Berger also differentiated between a protest action and a strike, saying protests do not deal with issues of mutual interest but with socio-economic issues and policy matters that take much longer to resolve. “Strikes are channeled through the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration. Protest action, on the other hand, is channeled through Nedlac.”

Basa has said the planned protest action will not help 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.

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

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