Since the incidents at Marikana in August 2012 we have seen a substantial upsurge in labour unrest at our mines, particularly in the platinum industry, where inter-union rivalry, all too often accompanied by violence, has become a major feature.
As retrenchments in the platinum sector are sure to follow the recent agreement which has ended the five-month long platinum belt strike, further turmoil could ensue.
So what can be done to secure peace and stability in a sector that needs it so much?
It is difficult to find a silver lining under these conditions, but a positive development is that Minister of Labour, Mildred Oliphant, has announced that she wishes to convene a conference of all interested parties to consider the present state of labour relations in the mining industry and amendments to current labour legislation to ensure labour peace.
In addition, the on-going unrest in the industry has provided a number of lessons for employers and government to take heed of in restoring peace and prosperity to this industry.
Principal for employers, in my view, is reconsidering their current remunerations and bargaining practices and procedures and avoiding those that favour a dominant trade union to the exclusion of smaller ones.
Mining companies should be encouraged to deal with the socio-economic issues affecting their workforces more effectively. Over-indebtedness, poor living conditions, water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure must be addressed. However, the responsibility does not only fall to the private sector. Government must use the taxes and royalties paid by mining companies to improve the conditions of workers living in informal settlements and communities around the mines.
In addition, due consideration must be given to changing the current migrant labour system where employees maintain two households, which is a chief contributor to over-indebtedness.
Finally, the AMCU strike has highlighted the imperative for mining companies to show sensitivity when financially rewarding members of executive management while refusing double-digit increases to ordinary workers.
From a regulatory perspective government must amend the Labour Relations Act to ensure stability in labour relations. While parliament has approved current proposed amendments there is sufficient time to review a number of provisions relating to strikes and picketing.
A pre-strike ballot is an obvious and sensible method of limiting the power of small groups within a majority trade union to force reluctant members to strike. The powers of the Labour Court to order a return to work and suspend a protected strike turned violent must be reconsidered. Similarly, the Labour Court's powers to grant urgent interim relief where there is non-compliance with a picketing agreement or rule also needs to be strengthened.
The powers of the Labour Minister to intervene in dysfunctional strikes where the parties cannot reach settlement and South Africa's economy is threatened, should be considered. This means amending the law to allow the minister to intervene in the public and national interest, calling for a return to work while the parties refer their dispute to a binding arbitration.
Provisions that afford a "winner takes all" dispensation where the majority trade union determines certain thresholds to exclude minority unions from participating in the workplace must also come under scrutiny.
Finally, government must also show leadership and take active steps to see that role players comply with the Framework for Peace and Stability in the Mining Industry. It should review its close relationship with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The split of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) from COSATU and its intention to call a metal and engineering industry strike in July will be a severe test for government - one in which it must be unbiased and supportive of the rule of law.
It can only be hoped the leadership of AMCU and other belligerent trade unions realise the grave consequences of their tactics and the risks that continued strike action can send South Africa's fragile economy over the precipice. Surely the loss of jobs, economic regression and stifled growth will only cause further labour unrest and hardship. Job creation, economic stability and respect for the law should be the ultimate goal of all role players.
Published in The Sunday Times, 29 June 2014