Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration director Cameron Morajane. Picture: SUPPLIED
Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration director Cameron Morajane. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) is among the best of the institutions created in the democratic era. While business did not like it at first, and many businesses — especially small ones — still don’t because of the bureaucracy entailed, it has been effective and is largely seen as a fair mediator.

It has therefore saved businesses and the economy much time and money and most importantly has given the most vulnerable sector of the workforce direct recourse to justice in a world where it is seldom accessible.

The latest developments at the CCMA are of huge concern. This year’s budget has been cut by R100m or 10% halfway through the year with much bigger cuts pencilled in for the following two years, in the region of 17% and 23%. While there are parts of the CCMA’s programme which can easily be cut in times of austerity — conferences and training — these cuts are too big and too sudden to be absorbed without a dramatic effect on services.

But the solution suggested by director Cameron Morajane is dramatic indeed. For two months, beginning on December 1, the CCMA will not use the services of any of its part-time commissioners. These consultants, mostly lawyers, conduct 60% of the commission’s arbitration hearings and have always been a part of the CCMA’s business model. Without them, arbitration backlogs will quickly build. The CCMA processed more than 200,000 complaints in 2019, a rate of close to 17,000 a month. Bigger, more complex cases will now face long delays.

How long the suspension of part-time services will continue is not clear. Even if these are resumed for February and March, the budget cuts starting on April 1 are much deeper and continue into the outer year and, likely, beyond.

This is not a viable solution and it is hard to understand why either Morajane or the department of labour can think it is. Senior management from the department who were present while Morajane outlined his mad scheme to MPs expressed regret at the budget cuts but said there was nothing to be done. Everyone had to take the pain, they said.

In the bigger picture this is true. Every department, agency and programme does have to take a large cut if the fiscal framework outlined in the medium-term budget policy statement is to be implemented. The budget cuts are essential to SA’s financial health and stability. While the refrain all around, in every parliamentary committee and every labour dispute in every state-owned enterprise is that the Treasury “needs to be engaged” or persuaded or even ordered to reverse this or that cut, it is not going to be possible.

But managers, agencies and directors-general will need to be smart about the selection of services to be cut and how. The CCMA, for instance, could take far greater advantage of technology to limit the costs of hiring venues and transporting commissioners. And the department of labour has several insignificant and ineffective agencies and programmes that should be re-evaluated. What for instance, is the role of Productivity SA? While its budget is not particularly large, is it still necessary? And how effective are the department’s “work seeker services”, which also take up a share of its budget?

The damage that will be inflicted on the CCMA is only the beginning. Many other agencies, departments and crucial services in schools and hospitals, as finance minister Tito Mboweni has tried to tell us, are going to be hit hard as the reality dawns that we are not as rich as we thought we were.

Every line item of the budget will need to earn its place relative to the priorities of the country. In this light, it was galling to notice in the budget documentation on the department of labour this week that R40m was transferred from the department of labour to that of public enterprises in October, for SAA. That is close to half of the cut from the CCMA budget this year.

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