An increased level of distrust towards trade unions is leading to dwindling support from everyday South Africans, with a survey from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) suggesting that fewer than one in five people are likely to join a union. Frequent strikes and political infighting have in recent years contributed to a decline in the country’s economy, further raising questions over the economic influence held by trade unions.
Whilst such organizations are finding relevance in post-Apartheid South Africa as a means of ensuring worker rights are upheld, IRR analyst, Boitumelo Sethlatswe, said the politicization of such groups was somewhat hurting their cause.
“We often speak of expectations that are set within trade unions with their members that are unrealistic, and therefore can’t be met by employers. We also see prolonged strikes, and we see retrenchments that are also due to these strikes,” she explained.
Another notable issue with trade unions according to Sethlatswe, was a “one sector, one union” policy, which was creating something of a monopoly and making the industrial relations landscape less competitive; to the detriment of members.
And with the recent, much publicized breakdown in relations between unions Cosatu and Numsa, things were not looking too good for the trade union sector. But whilst the issue may be perceived as a bad move for Cosatu, Sethlatswe suggested this was not necessarily bad for the local economy.
“When we see a strike that occurs, we see it literally holding the economy to ransom. I think trade unions can play a role in mitigating that,” she said.
Another issue with unions has been the widespread cases of intimidation and violence by members, directed at fellow co-workers who choose to ignore the calls for a strike, opting to continue working instead.
“That is largely something that we haven’t been able to protect, which is the right to work. Because we have this ‘one union, one sector policy’, we know that we have intimidation of workers who actually want to work,” she said.
She added that to address such cases of violence, national government and trade unions would need to collaborate in bringing about, and adhering to labor reforms to end such practices.
Of the 13 million working employees in the country, only 3.2 million have joined up as a member of a trade union. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)