Johannesburg – Ministers in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet are not speaking with one voice on whether South Africa should change its labour legislation to help mend the country’s failing industrial relations.

They also appear not to be on the same page on what precisely may need to be changed to reduce the duration of strikes and stop them turning violent.

Last week the two ministers whose views are likely to shape the government’s approach to labour relations in the mining sector gave contrasting outlooks on the cause of South Africa’s worsening industrial relations picture.

Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi and his labour counterpart, Mildred Oliphant, both participated in last week’s mining lekgotla in Gauteng. They were both quizzed on the future of mining and labour relations.

Their respective views could not have been more different. Since his appointment Ramtlhodi has pushed for revisions to the Labour Relations Act (LRA), seemingly convinced of the business lobby’s position that the country’s labour laws were too restrictive and worker-friendly.

This position is likely to put Ramatlhodi at loggerheads with the unions, particularly the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers.

Oliphant has taken a more nuanced approach, and told the lekgotla that the lack of real transformation in mining, and persistent inequality across the rest of the economy, were the more likely drivers of labour instability and workplace discontent.

Labour relations in South Africa are at an all-time low. The country has recently seen prolonged strikes, which often turned violent, in both the platinum and the engineering and metal sectors.

There are discussions among all social partners on what can be done to improve the situation.

These will eventually culminate in a meeting between the state, labour, business and civil society at the National Economic, Development and Labour Council next month.

Discussions include changing laws to force unions and bosses to go to compulsory arbitration after a certain number of days of industrial action and introducing strike ballots to ascertain how many people at a company are in favour of downing tools.

Other suggestions include empowering the courts to stop a strike if it becomes excessively violent and that such strikes be declared unprotected.

But Oliphant disagrees that the laws are the problem. “(It’s) more the lack of real transformation, socio-economic equity, mutual respect and trust in the workplace, in my observation, these have contributed to the anger and frustration that we see in the current industrial relations dynamics,” she told a closed session on the changing dynamics of industrial relations.

“The challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality, feeds into the troubles that we have observed in the recent past. The mediocre compliance with the existing labour laws, also contributes to the militant stances that workers often take in dealing with collective bargaining processes,” she said.

To make matters worse, statistics show that the wage gap between bosses and workers is growing. Executives earn 1 728 times more than workers.

The minister said bosses needed to explain why that wage gap was widening when employees continued to live in appalling conditions in the mining industry.

A recent five-month strike in the platinum belt and a more than month-long strike in the engineering and metal sector were more about these realities than the labour laws, she said.

While Ramatlhodi has not spoken openly about what changes he would like to see to the labour legislation, he has said the state needs a legal mechanism to activate if parties fail to reach a settlement and the strike has inflicted serious damage to the economy.

For now Ramathlodi’s position appears to have more sway in the upper echelons of power, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa having recently expressed himself in favour of some changes to LRA processes.

Although Ramaphosa last month denied media reports that he favoured making strike ballots compulsory, he spoke glowingly of the advantages of balloting union members on whether they wanted to strike.

“It is a mobilising tool and the advantage to employers is to show that the workers are determined to win their demands and they are deadly serious so it’s a vote that should indicate certain things to employers as well as to workers.

“So I’m hugely in support of that,” he told the Press Gallery Association.

Unions have slammed Ramaphosa on his strike ballot remarks. Ballots were included in the Labour Relations Amendment Bill, but withdrawn after protests from Cosatu. Significantly, both Ramaphosa and Ramatlhodi hold large private investments in mining companies, technically making them mining employers. Ramatlhodi has said he will disinvest.

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