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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

Strike season: Country could lose 1.6m work days

Experts advise the Swedish model of companies offering shares to workers would to much to combat South Africa's problems.

With South African Reserve Bank figures pointing to South Africa losing 1.6 million work days due to industrial action, a labour and economic expert yesterday conceded that the country’s winter strike season was an unavoidable phenomenon.

Fuelling strikes were a high unemployment rate and price instability, according to Dr Lucien van der Walt of the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit at Rhodes University.

South Africa is reeling from the impact of the winter striking season, with several sectors including mining, public sector, transport and healthcare, having been threatened by labour action.

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While acknowledging the disruptive nature of strikes, Van der Walt described labour action as “an important way for workers to express their collective demand”.

Strikes have value

“Understandably, strikes are disruptive and they are intended to be so. But strikes are used by workers as a last resort in the collective bargaining processes.

“You cannot go on a legal strike until you have exhausted all range of channels. They are an important way in which workers can safeguard themselves,” maintained Van der Walt.

Strikes, he said, were “out of control of government institutions and other bodies like Nedlac (National Economic Development and Labour Council)”.

Said Van der Walt: “We have to bear in mind that workers find themselves in a worst-off situation, because of having to deal with inflation, rising food prices and extreme high unemployment.

“Due to such pressures, most workers find themselves supporting far more people than their immediate families.

“Workers are often breadwinners for a large number of people, with every employee supporting up to 10 people.

“Strikes are not going to go away unless we have solutions to problems of unemployment and price instability.”

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Wage negotiations were “about give-andtake, with parties eventually settling for what is in the middle”.

“Employers are under pressure because the South African economy is not doing well. “We need to find a way to fix bigger problems like unemployment and price instability,” added Van der Walt.

He said Nedlac was becoming “a neglected space – having been marginalised during the (former president) Jacob Zuma years”.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to revive social compacting, where business, labour, government and the community can come together – to try to find long-term, win-win situations,” explained Van der Walt.

Independent political analyst Sandile Swana concurred: “The Nedlac process, which was meant to create industrial cooperation between the state, employers and workers, is a failed process.

“There is no agreement between those players to accelerate economic growth – they have failed to do that.”

‘Offer shares to workers’

Both Van der Walt and Swana agreed on the Swedish model of companies offering shares to workers.

“Offering workers shares in companies they worked for, was a big thing in the 1980s and the 1990s in South Africa.

“But this did not get much acceptance from unions, who felt that this was a way to remove their teeth.

“Reaping financial benefits from shares and going on strike, certainly leads to punishment, because you do not earn much dividends from company profits.

“Unions are not in support of shares – perceiving them as a way of blocking workers from going on strike.

“Countries like Sweden have changed a lot, which has reached a golden age of capitalism.

“Sweden has had a low unemployment rate, with welfare taking off the pressure,” said Van der Walt.

Said Swana: “Scandinavian countries have a prerequisite that there must be full employment in the economy. Sweden has an unemployment rate of between three and five percent.

“When there is full employment, workers have more power because they have more choices. There is less scab labour available.”

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