This article explains the trends in South Africa’s collective bargaining system over the past 20 to 30 years. It concentrates on bargaining councils (initially called industrial councils), as they constitute the core of collective bargaining. In order to appreciate the trends it is valuable to know the history of industrial relations and collective bargaining in South Africa. The article therefore commences with a brief historical overview. After examining the trends in collective bargaining it ends by looking at two of the most important challenges which South Africa’s collective bargaining system faces at present: the high incidence of strikes and the challenge of unemployment.
by Johann Maree
Johann Maree is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. He specialises in Industrial Sociology. His research interests include industrial relations, collective bargaining, trade unions, unemployment, job creation and industrial strategies. Last year, Juta & Co Ltd published a book entitled Collective Bargaining in South Africa: Past, Present and Future? which Johann co-authored with Shane Godfrey (lead author), Darcy du Toit and Jan Theron. Johann served on the Editorial Board of the South African Labour Bulletin for 28 years and is Interim President of IRASA, the Industrial Relations Association of South Africa.
Brief history of South Africa’s industrial relations and collective bargaining system The Industrial Conciliation Act 11 of 1924 (the IC Act) stood at the core of South African industrial relations and collective bargaining for the past 87 years. The Act was amended several times during its existence, and its name was later changed to the Labour Relations Act 28 of 1956 by the Labour Relations Amendment Act 57 of 1981. In essence it remained the same as the original IC Act.
At the heart of the IC Act was the establishment of industrial councils (ICs). However, there was a fundamental flaw in the IC Act in that it excluded Black Africans from the definition of “employee”. As a result, they were not allowed to belong to registered trade unions and were therefore excluded from ICs. This lasted until 1979 when the Wiehahn Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation recommendation that Africans be allowed to join registered trade unions and be directly represented on industrial councils was accepted by the government which amended the IC Act
After the passing of the IC Act, industrial councils were rapidly formed. They reached their peak in 1983, when there were 104 in operation. The councils varied enormously in size from large national councils to small local ones.
Centralised collective bargaining took place in the ICs. They negotiated wages and working conditions of all the employees represented by the unions and employers’ associations. The Agreements could be extended to cover all employees in an industry in the region covered by an IC. This arrangement suited large companies and registered trade unions on the councils, as it prevented the undercutting of wages by small companies and non-unionised workers. This has been the key factor explaining the durability of the industrial council system. »