Are employers failing to communciate with workers?

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    Des Squire

    The need to communicate effectively
    I would have thought by now we would have evolved from the violence that occurred during strikes in the days of apartheid. The repressive conditions under which unions have operated since inception are not acceptable in this day and age. So many people, including trade unionists, have fought and died for liberation and for democracy.

    Liza Van Wyk in a recent article I read states, “when democracy dawned there were expectations that the growth of workers rights….would do away with strike violence and the high levels of mass militancy.” Not so. More and more strikes are occurring and striking workers are DEMANDING more and more. Making demands is tantamount to commanding, insisting and setting ultimatums. This has of late been painfully and tragically evident and has in fact contributed to the loss of life at Marikana. Making demands and giving an ultimatum can never lead to constructive and meaningful communication. Certainly the loss of life, the destruction of property, the intimidation and assault does not contribute to constructive communication or in any way assist in gaining support and understanding.

    As Liza suggests, “if the parties involved (in peaceful discussion, negotiation and communication) try to understand each others point of view and treat each other with mutual respect they can avoid violent confrontations”. The parties involved must understand the labour laws, (it’s obvious they do not or they choose to ignore them) must work towards the common goal of arriving at a solution that is acceptable to all and most importantly one that will benefit all.

    What we are seeing at present is a change of focus by the workers in that they are now saying they will negotiate with management without the backup and support of the unions. The unions are losing face and are seen to be working for and supporting the employers.

    Unions aligned to political parties cannot remain impartial. They are guided by issues other than those contained in the labour Relations Act. Perhaps the workers are right. The labour Relations Act has made provision for workplace forums specifically for the purpose of negotiation and communication between employees and employers. Perhaps more companies and employees should make use of such forums. Workplace forums will afford all employees an opportunity of discussing with employers what they are unhappy about. Workplace forums are more conducive to open communication on specific issues that are of concern to employees. There are no hidden agendas and there is no room for personal objectives.

    The current failure of all parties to engage in meaningful, constructive communication will lead to more violence, more strikes, more injury, loss of life and unfortunately loss of jobs. Yes communication is a problem not only in terms of the current labour situation but in South Africa as a whole.

    When we were created we were given two ears and one mouth – we should therefore listen twice as much as we speak. Communication requires ability, understanding, a willingness to listen to the opinions of others and above all permitting others to express their opinions. Trust is essential in effective communication but trust cannot exist in negotiations when parties come to the table with hidden agendas, preconceived ideas and an attitude of “we will not give in”.

    My plea would be for all unions to call off all strike action, for all workers to go back to work, all parties to cease hostility and intimidation and for employers to sit and listen once and for all to the problems of their employees. Money is important but it is not the “be all and end all” of industrial action. There are other underlying causes and needs the workers have. Unfortunately the union representatives do not represent the workers when it comes to such issues.

    The way in which we have historically negotiated and made demands must stop – we must now communicate, “shut up” and listen. There is a need for openness and honesty. Yes – Let’s avoid another Marikana

    Des Squire (Managing Member)

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    Thanks for your thought-provoking article, Des.

    My question though, is whether effective communication is trully at the heart of the recent labour revolt? I tend to disagree with this notion. My experience both as a former trade unionist, Employee Relations Manager and now Employment Relations Consultant is that communication is only a small part of the problem. At the heart of the problem, which is not peculiar to the mining industry, is the establishment of relations simply to comply with labour laws, rather than to build workplace relations on trust, transparency and cooperation.

    The assumption made by Liza Van Wyk, from your reference to it, is that management-union interaction, be they negotiations, communication or consultation are necessarily ‘peaceful discussions’, is not founded on the workplace reality. Negotiation or consultation between employers and employees, especially over resources, whether scarce or in adequate supply are primarily adversarial in nature. Parties simply seek to get the best possible deal for its constituency, inevitably at the expense of the other. For as long as it remain a contest in which there must be a winner and loser, nothing meaningful could result. These engagements are sullied by the need to deceive the other side, rather than find common ground. Liza again appears to suggest that Labour Law serves as an antidote for workplace related or strike violence. The reality is that it does not. Lawlessness does not only occur in the absence of law, but rather in spite of its presence. This is particularly true when we live in a society with values and actions by public officials that portrays Law as bias and capable of being circumvented. Also, South Africa appear to have retained its character of resolving conflict through violent means, as strike violence is seldom dealt with by the full might of the Law, and appear to NOT to be frowned upon.

    You make the unfortunate assumption that trade unions are meant to be A-political or none-aligned, in order to be ‘impartial’. The question is, impartial to what or whom? The South African reality is that Black trade unionism, in particular, has always forged struggles which are much broader than those issues confined to the workplace. Cosatu union, especially, all has some reference or proclamation to establishing a socialist order in society of some sorts. This, of necessity requires a more equitable share of the means of productions which is NOT promoted by Labour Law that simply seeks the creation of an environment conducive for labour peace and economic development. This being the case, it is no accident that workers are prepared to operate outside the confines of the Law, and without the sanction of its unions.   

    What we are experiencing more and more is worker frustration with a democracy that continues to fail to deliver the prosperity to the poor and marginalized. We would be naïve if we believe that such deep-seated violence as was prevalent in SA just 17 years ago has suddenly been exorcised from a generation that lived through it. On the contrary, the violence has simply been buried in a shallow grave of expectation that government and capital will come to the party and deliver on the promise of democracy. Since this has not happened, and conditions appeared to be worsening all the time, this dormant volcano is slowly erupting with familiar violence.  

    The reality is that poverty by its very nature locks people in a cycle that perpetuates violence. The fact that workers have rights does not in and of itself bring about an end to poverty, or equality with employers. The notion that a worker living in a shack and a multimillionaire is somehow equal before the law is a misnomer, as this very notion is bourgeois – equality has a price. Similarly, equality before the law does not bring with it equity in society.

    In a society where the gap between the rich and poor is steadily growing, with a few connected Blacks joining the ranks of the ‘haves’, those left behind are bound to revolt. Unfortunately they associate their condition of squalor more closely with their employer, rather than the State. Consequently, if the salaries they earn are unable to buy them a decent dwelling, which is NOT necessarily the making of the employer, they vent their anger towards the employer. The employer thus becomes the outlet for Government’s failure to create conditions in society conducive for establishing dignity in its citizenry.  

    Can we realistically call for ‘meaningful, constructive communication’ when relations between parties are abnormal? Or are we experiencing the proverbial chickens coming home to roost, since expectations and lived experience of South Africans in general, but Blacks in particular has not changed from that under Apartheid? Can we expect a people confronted daily by violent poverty to act peacefully in the face of violence?

    We need more lasting solutions to our societal problems that throwing more money at it, as a short-term measure, as this are not sustainable. The increase in pay for the mining sector will still not address their socio-economic woes, resulting in this cycle of violence soon repeating itself, as it is seen as a means to achieve an end.


    Jonathan Cloete

    Quantum Employment Relations Solutions      

    Des Squire

    As you say, “Negotiation or consultation between employers and employees, especially over resources, whether scarce or in adequate supply are primarily adversarial in nature. Parties simply seek to get the best possible deal for its constituency, inevitably at the expense of the other” – Is this not a failure to communicate and play open cards? Isn’t this part of the hidden agenda I refer to?

    As you say, “it is no accident that workers are prepared to operate outside the confines of the Law, and without the sanction of its unions” because they are fed up with thos who have a political agenda. As I have said all parties must sit and discuss the real issues, be that poverty or consditions or whatever. This however can only be achieved if all agree to communicate and cease all demonstrations, strikes and so on.


    Agreed. The Lonmin settlement has unfortunately not helped the situation, but rather fuelled more strikes with outrageous demands, despite existing agreements in many instances.


    Des and Jonathan – thanks for starting this very worthwhile discussion and your contribution from experience.  There are so many factors at play here and you mention some of them.  I have long been of the view that a fundamental oversight of 1995 was to assume that we could move forward from the existing industrial relations base.

    In the removal of discrimination, there was the understanding by the legislators that one couldn’t simply declare everyone as equal and expect them to move forward from there.  Everyone wasn’t at the same start line of the race – many were very far behind the start line.

    In the industrial relations context, simply adding 5%, 8%, 10% whatever percentage, simply perpetuates (in fact exacerbates) the existing structure.  The evidence of this is that income disparities are now greater than they were under apartheid.  What I suggest we needed to do, was to have a long-term plan to reduce the disparities, for example that there was a plan to provide more at the lowest levels.  In fact globalisation, outsourcing, and various other factors have actually conspired to give them less.

    When I say to give more I am not saying only the private sector employer but also the state.  Take Marikana as an example: clearly the platinum industry is critical to our economy, clearly the employer requires a workforce in close proximity, and we know the hostels history so what was a known requirement was families, with schools, churches, community halls.

    In my opinion, that is what is still required at Marikana – the state and the companies should work together with the community.  We need a community structure – Ok, where are the town planners?  Where is the nearest university with an engineering and built environment department?  Every lecturer and every student should be on the ground.

    All the parties sit together and say OK who’s going to provide what?   The state, the employer, NGOs, international funding organisations, local universities and probably FETs should all be sitting in the veld with their drawings of a new city with all amenities.  To me the vision is clear.

    And then within the employer – not only what is communicated – but HOW is it communicated? 

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