The month long national bus strike has ended with workers securing a 9 percent increase for this year and 8 percent for next year.
What emerges from this strike is that workers were prepared to stay out on strike for a protracted period until their main demands were met. This included the demand that they be paid for the month that they did not work as a result of the strike. In most strikes in South Africa the main demands are financial in nature with workers seeking what may appear to some to be huge percentage increases and improved minimum wage levels. As a result the focus of the strike is on the numbers. What are the opening demands of the unions? What are employers saying they can afford to pay? How have the parties revised their positions over the duration of the strike and where have they finally ended up?
While the focus on the numbers is understandable, it does mean that we often do not consider what is driving workers’ demands for better wages and why they are prepared to continue striking even though it may take a substantial amount of time before an agreed increase can wipe out the loss of income suffered during the strike based on the no work-no pay principle.
The fact is that workers’ demands are intimately tied up with their socio-economic circumstances. Growing inequality of earnings, tough economic conditions and service delivery failures by government all contribute to demands by workers for increased wages and the provision of social benefits such as medical aid, housing and transport allowances. According to the World Bank, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Inequality takes on racial and gender dimensions, with the greatest income gap between white males and black females – despite affirmative action legislation. Wealth inequality is even more extreme with an estimated 10 percent of the population owning between 90 and 95 percent of all assets.
With the exception of public service and local government workers who arguably have made significant gains as far as wages and conditions of service are concerned, the wage structure in South Africa remains stratified and unequal. The end result is that workers largely continue to live in poverty and often receive wages way below the household subsistence. This situation seems to apply regardless of whether or not workers are unionised. Non-wage pressures are also a huge issue for low paid workers and casualised workers who receive the lowest non-wage benefits in the workforce. Added to this is the fact that they receive limited social benefits such as pensions, health care, transport and housing assistance. While it can be argued that these benefits need to be provided by government, in the absence of government doing so, is it not understandable that workers will look to their employers to assist with these services directly or indirectly through increased wages? The reality is that employers are the only tangible targets for workers when it comes to venting their frustrations and demanding a better life. Where employers are reluctant to even pay a living wage, or grant a decent increase, the likelihood of them being prepared to accede to “social” demands is slim.
If the above is the socio-economic context within which strikes are taking place, then focusing mainly on the numbers in wage negotiations will always only result in the temporary resolution of strike disputes. As this is not in the interest of employers, workers or the country as a whole, we need to work collectively towards addressing the underlying socio-economic conditions.
This article is based on research contained in Strikes and the Law published by LexisNexis of which three BCHC team members (Bradley Conradie, Professor Halton Cheadle and Professor Darcy Du Toit) are contributing authors.