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South Africa: Is it time to find different ways of engaging in collective bargaining in the mining sector?

24 June 2024
– 3 Minute Read

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Overview

  • While strike violence is a challenge facing many industries, there is the added pressure in the mining sector that arises due to the remote locations of the mines, the risk that striking employees will conduct a sit-in and cause damage to the mine shaft, and the risk of community involvement.
  • While there is always the option to approach the courts for interdictory relief, rushing off to court does not address the underlying issues and does not always bring the necessary relief. Rosalind Davey considers whether there is a better way to approach collective bargaining in the mining sector here.

There is a significant risk that strikes in South Africa will turn violent and that striking employees will resort to intimidation, violence and blockading. In our experience, many strikes are dysfunctional because of this type of conduct.

While strike violence is a challenge facing many industries, there is the added pressure in the mining sector that arises due to the remote locations of the mines, the risk that striking employees will conduct a sit-in and cause damage to the mine shaft, and the risk of community involvement.

While there is always the option to approach the courts for interdictory relief, rushing off to court does not address the underlying issues and does not always bring the necessary relief.

Dismissals of employees involved in this kind of criminal conduct should be easy, but often this is not the case. Identifying the perpetrators is often a time-consuming and difficult (if not futile) task, without which substantively fair dismissals are difficult to secure and final interdicts impossible to obtain. This is especially so when faced with masked attackers who strike after dark.

This results in expensive and uncertain litigation, difficulties with discipline, and problems in communities. Added to this is the physical and psychological harm done to the victims of strike violence and intimidation, and the financial, structural and reputational damage to the mine.

There must be a better way. The aim of collective bargaining should not be to simply reach an agreement. The aim should extend to building co-operation and good faith engagements between labour and employers in between negotiations, and addressing underlying issues.

In this regard, there has been a clear recognition of the need to shift away from a focus on positional-based bargaining, which is inherently adversarial and competitive, to interest-based bargaining focused on reaching joint mutually beneficial solutions.

This shift requires effort and investment on the part of employers. In particular, employers should consider investing time and money in:

  • relationship building between the members of the negotiating teams;
  • engagements that promote transparency with the shop stewards and employees, to build trust;
  • negotiation and mediation training and upskilling (for both employer representatives and shop stewards) to ensure meaningful and realistic engagements;
  • advanced planning for strike action and training for the management team on preparing for and managing strike action; and
  • engaging the community to build relationships and avoid a ‘them versus us’ mentality.

We need to change the way we do things if we hope to end the cycle of acrimonious collective bargaining and dysfunctional industrial action.