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2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - South Africa

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - South Africa, 20 November 2008, available at: [accessed 11 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 48,600,000
Capital: Pretoria
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

The largest strike in the post-Apartheid era generated a lot of violence. Based on an incorrect interpretation of what constitute essential services, the government displayed an unsavoury authoritarian approach by threatening and then actually sacking hundreds of workers. The trend of disproportionate police repression, dating back to 2006, continued throughout 2007 in many different sectors.

Trade union rights in law

Freedom of Association: The law provides for freedom of association. All workers, with the exception of members of the National Intelligence Agency (NTA) and the Secret Service are allowed to join unions and are protected against unfair dismissal. Employers can, however, lay off workers on the grounds of "operational requirements".

Collective bargaining: The law provides for collective bargaining rights and organisational rights, such as trade union access to work sites and the deduction of trade union dues. The law contains provisions to encourage collective bargaining in small businesses, and among home workers and workers in the informal economy. Unions can seek redress in the courts for unfair dismissal.

In May 2006 the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court of Appeal on an on-going case on whether the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is under duty to bargain collectively with SANDU.

Right to strike: The right to strike is recognised for all workers including those in the public sector, provided they do not work in essential services or the security forces. This right is undermined by the legal right of employers to hire replacement workers during a strike.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Background: The year was marked by the long June strike that was followed by hundreds of thousands of public service workers. The unions eventually secured a 7.5% pay increase, i.e. just above the 7% inflation rate. The workers' housing and health care allowances – a priority in a country hit hard by HIV/AIDS – were raised. The strike also gave workers the opportunity to criticise the policies of President Thabo Mbeki, which they regarded as not "social" enough and too pro-business.

Obstruction of organising and arrests of strikers on farms: In the agricultural sector, employers are frequently hostile towards trade unions. Where trade unionists try to recruit new members, for instance, some employers ban them access to the farms on the pretext that they are private property. During labour disputes the employers are generally supported by the police. In March, for example, activists from the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) were briefly arrested during strikes at the Blue Ribbon company, and in August the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse FAWU members on strike at the wine company Oranjerivier. The police subsequently arrested around 60 strikers, before releasing them shortly afterwards.

Repression of a miners' strike: On 16 February, in Rustenburg, the police used violence to suppress a strike at the Impala platinum mine. Several miners were injured after the police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets. Seven members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were subsequently arrested. The NUM's demands concerned health care allowances and the regular supply of anti-retroviral drugs to workers infected by HIV/AIDS.

Intimidation and mass dismissals during the general strike: During the June general strike the authorities ordered those strikers providing essential services to return to work or else be sacked. They then carried out their threats by sacking around 600 strikers (who were reinstated when the strike ended). The unions denounced what they regarded as an incorrect interpretation of "essential services". They said the authorities had continually refused since 1999 to negotiate any agreements concerning essential services. That applied too at the state electricity company Eskom, where no workers are allowed to go on strike. During the June general strike, when deprived of this means of pressure, the unions at Eskom asked the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to define which groups of workers should be regarded as providing "essential" services, but the management replied that the CCMA had no legal competence in that area.

Police repression during the general strike: The general strike led to violence in many towns and workplaces. The police repression was often excessive. In early June, in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and several other cities, the police used force to break up strike pickets in front of hospitals. Dozens of nurses were assaulted and arrested, along with teachers, civil servants and other public service workers. The police made abundant use of their full range of repressive weapons: truncheons, stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon. The unions denounced the excessive use of force by the police; it was deployed with no prior warning and caused many injuries.

Refusal to recognise the union, harassment and sanctions against strikers at Vodacom: On 2 July, the Communication Workers Union of South Africa (CWU) began a strike aimed at forcing the telephone company Vodacom to recognise it, after months of unsuccessful attempts. The management's reply was to ask those workers interested in the union to sign a "loyalty pledge" with the company, or else they would be fired. Soon afterwards, Vodacom suspended the strikers' medical benefits, which was a particularly harsh decision for those suffering from chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS. The company filed complaints against 11 members of the CWU for failing to respect the law on strike picketing. At least five of them were briefly arrested by the police. The strike ended in early August after the CWU was recognised by Vodacom. However the telephone operator did not stop repressing the union. In August, 21 members of the CWU were suspended. In September, the CWU managed to get the court cases lifted and succeeded in getting 18 of its 21 suspended members reinstated. The three others, who were subjected to disciplinary measures, were sacked.

Trade unionists are increasingly becoming victims of employers' authoritarianism: In November, the South African NGO Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) expressed alarm at the growing number of violations of workers' freedom of expression. In addition to many cases in the health sector, FXI highlighted four cases in which trade unionists had been subjected to disciplinary proceedings or had been dismissed for criticising bad management or working conditions. The cases concerned two municipal workers belonging to the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) in Cape province, a civil servant who was the COSATU President in the Free State and a member of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) employed by Capacity Outsourcing, a sub-contracting media company.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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