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Pay settlement won't be enough to defuse public sector anger – business must also take note

3 September 2010

A pay settlement alone will not be sufficient to reduce tensions and the underlying anger fuelling the public sector strike. There are also key lessons for the private sector

These are the views of two prominent labour lawyers, Leigh Allardyce and Celeste Allan who do labour law training for AstroTech, one of South Africa's top management training companies, both also work in the private sector and consult to the public and private sector, unions and bosses.

Liza van Wyk, CEO of AstroTech said they were seeing a surge in inquiries from corporates and the private sector for labour related training whether about labour law or emotional intelligence. "There seems to be a general consensus that this strike is about more than just wages and reflects a general anger among the workforce as a whole, there are fears too that tensions could be high in workplaces afterward and productivity could decline further."

South Africans should be wary of breathing a sigh of relief once workers agree to a settlement and go back to work, "at the nub of this strike are issues that should have been resolved three years ago and have not," Allardyce said.

She and Allan believe that workers are increasingly angry with what they see as arrogant positions from government. Allan points out that Cosatu's list of demands include action against allegations of corruption, nepotism and the use of black economic empowerment to enrich a few instead of a stronger focus on enhancing skills training for the many, and here, Allan suggests, the blame lies within the public and private sectors.

She notes too that, "none of the government departments should be on strike, the legislation makes provision for compulsory arbitration for essential services but because of the tripartite alliance (and too local government elections next year) government fears losing political support. This situation could have been handled in a better way to ensure workers don't lose income as well as delays in matric exams and a serious impact on public hospitals."

Allan is concerned that there is a "potential for conflict in the workplace after this strike. Some people are saying I cannot afford to strike because I can't afford not to be paid, or I don't believe this is the way to deal with the situation, but that could see further intimidation after the strike and an impact, productivity. Wage increases should be coupled to an expectation of increased productivity.

"Workers are angry with ostentation at the top, Cosatu has listed corruption, enrichment of leaders for their own benefit and their families as other factors behind this strike this is a more political strike than a wage strike."

Allan and Allardyce warn that all sectors of the economy need to heal this strike and the reasons behind it. Allan notes: "There are a few lessons for employers; one is to understand that there is anger at a grassroots level that is more than likely going to spill into the private sector. It is important to build relationships with staff and give earned rewards.

"An area of concern lies in the application of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment. What was intended to be a process of improving skills and equity in the workplace has in instances become a mechanism to enrich a few with too little attention to skills advancement."

Leigh Allardyce, who has extensive experience with unions, says she feels that there should have been more "active listening during negotiations. I think the negotiating parties did not respectfully listen to each other which created breakdowns in communication. Teachers and the health sector have been saying for a long time, they need more input, better resources…

"A friend of mine is a doctor at a state hospital and is head of two units, she works around the clock, she does this for the love of it and not the money, but she says no one cares whether they are looked after or protected from security incidents and there is a chronic lack of resources. Things have boiled over to the extent that people are so upset they are now taking a stand.

"Before the strike I visited someone at Johannesburg hospital who had been shot, there were no sheets on the bed, he had to lie on the plastic covered mattress. There is a big gap between promise and delivery.

"What concerns me is that some teachers who have tried to go back to avoid their matrics failing have been threatened by colleagues with sjamboks and knobkierries - how can they work harmoniously together afterward?

"A pay increase will treat symptoms. The root causes need to be addressed, this could have been avoided if issues were addressed three years ago. This is now a task for all South Africans to sympathetically address."

She and Van Wyk urged the private sector to use these strikes as a template for evaluating conditions in their own workplace. "Check whether workers have adequate tools to perform optimally, have they recently received a skills upgrade, is there a complaints forum that carefully listens and gives honest feedback to workers and employers," Van Wyk said.

"Is there excessive disparity between the salaries of those at the top and the lowest paid workers? Is there a culture of accountability – managers to workers and workers to employers? The time to begin preventing the next strike and further economic destruction is now and it requires all of us to give it serious, thoughtful consideration," she said.


Liza van Wyk, CEO AstroTech 011 582 3200 cell: 082 466 8975 or

Issued by Charlene Smith Communications