It is not in the interest of South Africa’s embattled manufacturing industry to allow the trade unions in the sector to lose their “control and authority”, Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa) president Henk Duys said on Friday.
Delivering the federation’s yearly presidential address, in Johannesburg, Duys, who proclaimed himself to be an “unashamed capitalist”, said there was a need for the social partners to “work together to restore peace, before it is too late”.
The address was delivered against the backdrop of serious industrial relations tensions in the mining sector and a protracted truckers strike, which was resolved on October 12, following several violent, some deadly, incidents.
The National Treasury estimated that the unprotected strikes in the mining sector, involving some 75 000 miners, had, by early October, resulted in gold, platinum and coal production losses of R4.6-billion.
In 2011, Seifsa and six industry trade unions signed a three-year settlement agreement for the period from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2014.
That agreement followed on from a period of strike action, which was also characterised by incidents of violence. It provided for staggered wage increases, from 8% to 10% for skilled and unskilled hourly-paid employees respectively.
The deal was also associated with the establishment of an ‘Industry Policy Forum’, tasked with probing strategic challenges facing the industry, particularly ways to improve competitiveness and the creation sustainable employment conditions.
Duys argued that the unions were a “stabilising force with whom we can engage and negotiate”. But he also stressed that there needed to be an appreciation from trade unions that Seifsa’s 2 250 member companies, which collectively employed 250 000 people, were in survival mode. “As good corporate citizens we are fully aware of the roles that we are expected to play to bring normality to our society, but our first priority is to survive.
“Please note that I am talking about survival. I am not talking about growth, I’m talking about retaining existing jobs – we have to survive first, then we can grow,” Duys averred.
The current threats to the bargaining process in the industry, which were being driven by events in other sectors, as well as internal elements, could further threaten the survival of many companies.
Duys was particularly unhappy with the threat posed by the National Employers Association of South Africa (Neasa), which represented about 900 companies, employing 21 000 people. Neasa, which had mounted legal challenges to the latest wage agreement, was also contesting Seifsa’s presence on the council as an appointed and mandated agent for the registered employer associations.
He argued that Neasa, which had been allocated the majority of seats in Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC), could be “trying to destroy the council from within”.
“The disproportionate and temporary dominant position afford to Neasa [in the MEIC] has to change quickly and Seifsa will be taking action to rectify this anomalous and unfair position.”
But he acknowledged that Seifsa was also in need of an “overhaul” to remain relevant, indicating that the independent associations affiliated to Seifsa should be give greater space to “represent their own interests . . . at source”.
“The bargaining arena must accommodate this change,” he added, with Seifsa assisting with specifically mandated negotiations with unions and with national lobbying efforts.