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Key workplace issues that remained unresolved in 2021 will be issues of importance on the labour relations scene in 2022.

The public unions’ dissatisfaction with this year’s public service salary negotiations (with the National Education, Health & Allied Workers’ Union refusing to sign the agreement), the long-awaited Constitutional Court ruling on nonimplementation of the last leg of the 2018 agreement, and the new 2022 negotiations will all be interlinked as there are still so many loose ends.

Government negotiators are likely to use the National Treasury’s Public Sector Remuneration Strategy, which finance minister Enoch Godongwana referred to in his medium-term budget policy statement for its positioning in the negotiations. In terms of this strategy, government employees can expect only a 1.5% increase in 2022/2023. The Treasury’s flexibility in the negotiations will indicate whether Godongwana, as a former trade unionist, is still clinging to his roots or will be driven by government finance restrictions.

Burning issues at Eskom are similar to the aforementioned due to the dispute between unions and Eskom about its unilateral implementation of the 2021 salary increases, with the unions having referred the matter for arbitration. The ruling in this regard is due soon. The 2022 negotiations are set to begin in April. This will be preceded by more headbutting about Eskom’s unbundling process.

Similarly, Sibanye-Stillwater is embroiled in a wage dispute with mining unions at its gold mines. Sibanye’s strong position of being prepared to offer only below-inflation increases for workers at its gold mines and a confrontational approach to negotiations serve as an invitation to strikes. A strike at Sibanye’s gold mines could be of strategic benefit to the mining house due to imminent retrenchments at certain shafts, strikes could be used to motivate retrenchments. As Sibanye cannot afford a strike at its highly profitable platinum mines, a gold strike could reduce the risk of a platinum strike as the mining unions might not have the appetite for back-to-back strikes. Sanity from all parties involved needs to prevail.

The outcome of the investigation conducted by the Essential Services Committee (ESC) in the coal and steel sectors may have a significant affect on strikes in these highly unionised sectors. The ESC will declare a service as essential where it can be shown that an interruption of that service would pose a clear and imminent threat to the life, personal safety or the health of the whole or part of the population. Should these services be declared essential, the result will be that employees employed within these services will not be allowed to go on strike.

Essential services

On the coal side, the ESC is investigating the possibility of declaring the following services as essential: cage operations, security, ventilation, control room, emergency services and coal supply services. On the steel side, the focus is on services relating to manufacturing, production and the supply and distribution of steel. It is up to the trade unions that are organised in the coal mining and steel sectors to convince the ESC not to declare these services as essential, while employers represented by major legal firms are attempting to persuade the ESC to declare the said services as essential.

Employers in the steel sector will be hoping for an outcome in their favour before the commencement of the serious negotiations that will take place at Columbus Steel as from January and at ArcelorMittal from March. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) will follow an aggressive approach at ArcelorMittal because its is not happy with the 2021 increases.

Eskom’s winter electricity tariffs, load-shedding and high import and export taxes will once again be a stumbling block for trade unions when it comes to wage increases. A ray of light is that steel production is on the increase and Highveld Steel’s plant will soon be in production, while the government’s Master Plan for the Steel and Metal Fabrication Sector could stimulate further growth in steel manufacturing. However, high steel prices are hurting the smaller manufacturers, which could lead to job losses downstream.

Apart from the social impact on employees, even more employees who have scarce skills will seek better opportunities abroad.

Though the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) will not be saddled with negotiations in 2022, this prominent bargaining council finds itself in a struggle for survival as a result of antagonistic employer organisations that are obstructing an increase in the council’s administration fees, and so 2022 will be a make-or-break year for this council.

In the aviation industry, which has been hit hard by Covid-19, there is uncertainty about the business rescue processes at Comair and Mango, with Mango able to survive only if an investor is found. Meanwhile, Mango has made voluntary severance packages available, but all 708 jobs are in jeopardy.

At Safair, the only airline that is fairly stable, salary negotiations for pilots and cabin crew will take place during the first quarter of 2022. At the same time, salary negotiations will begin at the beleaguered SAA Technical, which has recently reduced its workforce from 1,900 to 484.

Negotiations in the Bargaining Council for the chemical industry’s petroleum, industrial chemicals and glass sectors will also kick off early in the new year. Negotiations in the glass sector will be unique insofar as it has been agreed that negotiations will focus on one aspect only, namely a salary increase.

The parties in the new tyre industry will seek to reach an agreement by mid-2022 in a sector that is under huge pressure due to Covid-19 and the impact of regulatory uncertainty on the sector.

Unfortunately, unpaid Denel employees will face yet another uncertain year with no hope of a government bailout. Apart from the social impact on employees, even more employees who have scarce skills will seek better opportunities abroad.

On the trade union side, two prominent election congresses will take place. Irvin Jim, general secretary of the metalworkers’ union, Numsa, and William Mabapa, the acting general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, will do everything in their power to retain their top leadership positions. On the other hand, Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), will seek to have the recent labour court ruling, in terms of which his re-election as president in 2019 was declared invalid, set aside.

As far as freedom of choice is concerned when it comes to the mandatory Covid-19 vaccination of employees, a definite answer should come early in 2022 in the light of the expected adjusted disaster management regulations, court rulings, an analysis of the fourth wave’s hospital and death statistics, the effect of Covid-19 on the economy and job losses and international developments.

• Du Plessis is Solidarity’s general secretary.

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