WHO benefits from a strike? With the workers going at a "no work, no pay" and the fiscus losing out, I certainly doubt business makes anything out of it.
The auto industry strike and the gold miners' strike are said to have cost the economy a combined R969-million a day. Why do we have so many strikes because no one claims to be benefiting?
All this happens against the backdrop of unemployment in South Africa having increased to 25.6% in the second quarter of this year from 25.2% in the first quarter. What is it about the South African labour system that makes striking seems desirable or even expected, year on year?
The answer lies in 1980s labour relations where unions were used as political weapons. Companies were viewed as self-serving and extracting the most out of operations while giving very little to the employees.
During that time, liberation movements used the trade union movement as another tool in their arsenal. With things having changed politically, it appears the suspicion and scepticism still lingers on in our labour relations.
It would appear that employees continue to feel they are being exploited, while business seems to hold the view that employees are over compensated given their productivity.
To change this situation, we need to look at leadership and how this translates to national interest. Labour, business and government need to model their interests around what works for the country.
A classic example is when South Korea's labour partners agreed to "no layoffs in exchange for wage freezes, concessions and job sharing". South Korea is still reaping results from this act of national interests above all else.
As South Africa is still suffering from the labour relations hangover from the 1980s, we need to break the mould and find long lasting solutions that place our country on the right path. This will be difficult for the following reasons:
The relationship between the ANC and Cosatu is at an unhealthy point and the result could very well be "one-upmanship" that stands in the way of making progress in the interest of the country. The flip side of this is that government is unable to intervene as a neutral party in labour disputes because of its close relationship with the unions.
This becomes even more difficult when the contemplated strike is in the public sector where the government is an employer. To be able to deal with this, the government would need to be schizophrenic by being an employer looking after the interests of the state and being a friend.
This situation is untenable.
Business has used the "investor will flee" bogeyman almost always when there is a strike. This has not deterred labour unions from embarking on strike action. This only results in the hardening of stances because it is more condescending than useful.
While there may be some truth to this, the timing of the statements about investors is unfortunate if it is issued during strikes.
If you look at the German model, you will notice that the works council gets involved in the business so that when the company says it cannot afford increases, the works council knows and believes that. In the South African context, employees are kept in the dark until such a time when the situation is hostile, and there is suspicion is about anything and everything.
On the other side, labour unions seem to understand very little about the impact of the ridiculous increases they ask for. Common sense suggests that if you spend most of your income on salaries, this leaves little money for investments that could lead to job creation.
This not only stifles business's ability to create more opportunities but it also makes the business less competitive, hence increasing the chances of the business failing and people losing jobs. A classic case of how to ruin industries is the how the British auto industry collapsed, one of the quoted primary reasons being the labour union intransigence and the number of strikes that made the industry uncompetitive.
South African labour unions would do well to learn some valuable lessons from the British example.
All players in the employment sphere need to craft a united focus in the interest of the country and work towards that. If we are unable to do this, the impact may leave South Africa as the biggest loser and our heritage will be left in ruins because we couldn't put national interests ahead of profits, political and narrow interests.
Zola Mbulawa, Cape Town