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Extra care needed in wage negotiations this year – van Wyk

19 May 2009

Government, labour and business will have to be more careful in this "strike season" than in previous years, AstroTech CEO Liza van Wyk said on Tuesday.

The new Cabinet had a powerful section of top trade unionists likely to reverse government's growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) strategy and focus on greater worker rights and development for the poor, the training organisation's head said in a statement.

These included Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana, Deputy Public Enterprises Minister Enoch Godongwana, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, and Deputy Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi.

"Coupled with that, May to September every year is strike season in South Africa and already there have been doctor, bus-driver, and taxi strikes, and more are threatened.

"All parties have to be much more careful in this strike season than in previous years," she said.

A bad economic climate globally meant pay rises and bonuses for the boss and workers were likely to be low or non-existent.

In the US, 15% of the workforce was on short working weeks and bonuses and pay-rises had been scrapped by many companies, and more than 600 000 workers lost their jobs every month from November to March.

In South Africa, economists predicted around 300 000 jobs would be lost.

Hard hit sectors were mining, vehicles, banking, property and construction.

"We are fortunate that the huge infrastructural projects surrounding the 2010 Soccer World Cup have given jobs to many," van Wyk said.

It was critical that unions, human resources, and management be acquainted not just with the latest labour legislation, "but also how to negotiate in an effective, non-confrontational manner that will develop and not cripple an industry".

"We are already seeing significant percentages of businesses collapsing and more pressure on companies could push them over the edge and result in job losses."

The total number of liquidations recorded for the first quarter of 2009 increased by 46,7% (from 687 to 1008) compared with the first quarter of 2008, according to Statistics South Africa.

There were increases of 58,7% in company liquidations (from 312 to 495) and 36,8% in close corporation liquidations (from 375 to 513).

"It is critical that employers and unions have hard facts of trends locally and internationally to ensure that peaceful and constructive resolution can be attained for all," she said.

Among those appointed to Cabinet for the first time or re-appointed were unionists with solid track records of understanding their sectors.

Among others, Motlanthe and Patel had worked in areas profoundly impacted upon by the global economic downturn, namely mining and clothing and textiles.

"But both in their work as unionists have shown fine economic sensitivities and the ability to come up with solutions that benefit workers and industry.

"But everyone, whether employers or workers, are now walking economic tightropes."

South Africa had some of the finest labour laws in the world, along with exceptional models of good practice, whether in union activity, mediation and arbitration mechanisms, and organisations, such as the National Economic Development and Labour Council, she said.

These had over many years seen exceptional co-operation between business, unions and government.

It was essential however, that everyone worked closely together, stuck to the letter of the law, and were motivated by solutions that did not just protect South Africans, but helped build the nation, van Wyk said.

Edited by: Sapa