Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

In its recent Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) sketched a bleak picture of labour relations in the country, ranking SA in 137th position out of 137 countries. The report states that SA has the worst labour relations in the world.

In looking for a solution, one must look beyond employer-trade union relations, though. The total labour relations system must be analysed, and this includes political, economic, social, technological and international developments, which together with government policies, determine the state of labour relations.

For a start, politically linked corruption comes in the form of corporate corruption arising from state capture, such as the Bosasa and VBS matters, and various other examples of poor corporate governance such as what has been seen at the Gupta mines. This corruption has already destroyed thousands of jobs and it has created an unhealthy climate for labour relations.

What is even more extreme is the way in which violent service delivery protests and a political inclination to remove opponents from society affect labour behaviour. For example, the CEO of the Gupta JIC Mining Services was shot dead as a direct consequence of a labour dispute. A number of employees have also been killed in strike-related incidents during recent strikes at Gold Fields and Sibanye-Stillwater.

If the rule of law is not effectively enforced outside the workplace, it would be even more difficult to do so in the workplace, and violent crime will escalate.

The shameful behaviour of certain politicians in parliament is inspiring trade unions’ younger shop stewards at shop-floor level, in particular, to be as militant in company boardrooms. Such shameful parliamentary behaviour, linked to political intolerance, promotes improper workplace behaviour and union rivalry among politically aligned unions.

New technology is also a major disruptor of the workplace. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) will result in a smaller workforce where critical skills will provide job security. A more flexible and decentralised workplace would be a further consequence and trade unions will have to prepare for a decrease in collective workplace issues as employees’ needs will centre around training and the effect of technology on their daily lives. According to a 2018 Accenture Report, 35% of jobs in SA are threatened by automation linked to the 4IR.

However, the WEF forecasts that 41% of the jobs in SA could be automated. The “dubious” good news for us, though, is that the 4IR depends on reliable power supply, which means it would take longer for it to materialise here, but it also means that most of the 4IR jobs would be created elsewhere in the world while our power utility was in ICU and job creation was hamstrung as a result.

As far as the influence of government policy on labour relations is concerned, the effect of expropriation of land will be felt across all economic sectors because investors do not necessarily regard this issue as a land issue, but rather a threat to private ownership and proprietary rights. Its effect already makes itself felt in the mining industry where international mining houses such as AngloGold Ashanti and South32 are downscaling their interests in SA and are expanding their interests beyond our borders.

A long list of more anti-investor policies is in the pipeline. This could result in a credit rating downgrade, which would ultimately hit the unemployed and low skilled workers hardest, thus increasing social decay.

The international effect of our government’s foreign policy (pro-Chinese) on labour relations can be seen in the hijacking of industries by the Chinese. This means that projects are snatched away from local business and with it comes an influx of Chinese workers into the country. The counter reaction is Trump’s protectionism approach that is particularly detrimental to job creation in the poultry, steel, sugar and automotive industries.

The examples referred to in this article illustrate the effect of external factors on labour relations. Although trade unions and employers no doubt have a duty to practise better labour relations, and populist unions must end their violent strikes, the basis for normalising labour relations lies largely at a political level and at government level. Hopefully,  after the May general election, the political landscape will offer a more favourable environment to restore labour relations.

• Du Plessis is  general secretary of trade union Solidarity.