SAA and Eskom will be the focal points of labour relations during the first half of the year.

Eskom’s restructuring plan should now begin to give greater clarity on the much-talked-about unbundling process. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), in particular, will be fiercely opposing any form of privatisation or staff reduction.

André de Ruyter, Eskom’s new CEO, will soon realise that Eskom’s operational and labour relations challenges are closely linked.

Numsa is also expected to oppose any form of privatisation at SAA, and the main challenge for all the unions involved will be to convince the business rescue practitioners to rather reduce staff at top management level and provide job security to employees at lower levels. This will be a challenge, because bringing about job security in the long run requires getting rid of all redundant posts.

Regarding other substantive retrenchments, ArcelorMittal SA will be continuing the retrenchment processes that started in 2019. The closing down of Saldanha Steel should be finalised by February, with 565 permanent employees and 1,500 contractors affected. A retrenchment notice is also expected to be issued at the company’s Newcastle plant early in the year. It follows retrenchment processes that were recently completed at its Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging plants.

Traditional hospitals are already struggling due to competition by day hospitals

Struggling state entities such as PetroSA, Prasa and Transnet may also start retrenchment processes in 2020, and it will not be surprising if private sector companies such as Sasol and Tiger Brands, as well as many marginal mines, follow suit.

The public service and administration ministry will have a tough time down-managing the salary expectations of public servants and public service unions in 2020, despite the state of the economy and the Eskom factor. However, the main pressure will be on the aviation industry, with SAA now in business rescue and salary negotiations kicking off soon at Air Traffic Navigation Services, SAA Technical and FlySafair, while negotiations at Comair will get under way in September.

In February, negotiations will also begin at hospital group Netcare. It will indicate whether the group is beginning to steel itself for the effect of national health insurance. Traditional hospitals are already struggling due to competition from day hospitals.

Salary negotiations that will start in a month at the struggling Denel promise to be tough, with the threat of retrenchments due to problems at exporting arms to the Middle East in particular.

At Telkom, salary negotiations are expected to begin in March. During the negotiations two years ago the Communications Workers Union and SA Communication Union refused to sign an unfavourable salary agreement despite their backs being against the wall, and it was subsequently implemented unilaterally by Telkom. The two unions will surely seek to turn the tables this time.

Challenging negotiations

The negotiations to be conducted under the banner of the struggling Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council from April will be critical to the sustainability of the steel industry. The negotiations will be conducted on the proverbial deck of the Titanic, and the unions and employees concerned should perhaps consider putting 2020’s negotiations on ice and extending the current agreement by a year to create space for the sector to stabilise.

In the mining sector, negotiations will be conducted at Sasol’s coal mines from April. The negotiations are sure to be challenging due to the company’s financial position and competition between unions such as Solidarity, the mineworkers’ unions Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and NUM, and the chemical sector unions SA Chemical Workers’ Union (Sacwu) and  Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu), which will also be involved in the negotiations.

Also in the mining sector, Kumba Iron Ore, Assmang and South 32 Hotazel Manganese in the Northern Cape will be conducting negotiations from May. These mining companies will have to face NUM, Solidarity and Amcu (Kumba only).

The coming year will also be the first year that salary negotiations with the major coal companies, including Anglo American Coal, Glencore and Exxaro Coal, will take place on mine level from June, after all coal companies opted to withdraw from centralised collective bargaining that used to take place under the auspices of the Minerals Council (previously Chamber of Mines).

The effect of the fourth industrial revolution will increasingly be experienced in 2020 by companies in the manufacturing and mining sectors in particular, where workplaces will be continuously automated. To enhance job security for their members, unions should make skills development the core of their salary negotiations.

Du Plessis is general secretary of Solidarity.

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