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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - South Africa

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - South Africa, 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 16 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: 50,100,000
Capital: Pretoria
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Police dealt forcefully with strikers and protestors using tear gas and rubber bullets against world cup stewards and more rubber bullets together with water cannons against striking public sector workers. In the private sector Bridgestone Firestone obstructed collective bargaining while a pharmaceutical chain refused to negotiate. Striking workers in the motor industry were dismissed. Although secured in law, the right to strike is weakened by the employers' right to hire replacement workers.


While the Constitution and the Labour Relations Act provide a strong legal foundation for trade unions to exercise their rights, some issues exist. All workers – with the exception of members of the National Intelligence Agency and the Secret Service – are allowed to join unions and are protected against unfair dismissal, and unions can seek redress in court for such dismissals.

The Labour Relations Act favours centralised collective bargaining at the sectoral level but does not prohibit bargaining at other levels. Bargaining normally takes place in bargaining councils or in statutory councils. However, in order establish a bargaining council a trade union must be "sufficiently representative", but there is no definition in the Act of the term.

The right to strike is explicitly guaranteed and is broadly construed to include pickets, secondary strikes and socioeconomic protest actions. Nevertheless, the right is curtailed by the fact that employers are permitted to hire replacement workers during defensive lock-outs, i.e. lock-outs called in response to a strike.


Background: South Africa was the focus of world attention when it hosted the 2010 football World Cup in June. Despite this temporary boost the country still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world with over a third of the workforce out of work. During the year the government launched an awareness campaign on HIV/AIDS as the country still has among the highest prevalence in the world. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) celebrated its 25th anniversary in December.

Telecoms company keeps union at bay: The Communication Workers' Union of South Africa (CWU) reported in February that it was not consulted on the restructuring of MTN, one of the country's largest telecom operators, despite the provisions of the 1995 Labour Relations Act on union consultation. The company argued that it was not obliged to recognise the union as it represented less than 10% of staff. The union countered that the company had actively fought to keep membership below the 10% legal threshold for recognition.

Police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at striking World Cup workers: On 14 June, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at about 500 workers staging a protest over pay outside the football World Cup stadium in Durban. The riot police were equipped with body armour, helmets and guns. The workers said they had been promised 1,500 rand a day, but had only been paid 190. They had also been left with no transport and were facing long walks home. The protesters claim their action, three hours after a match, had been peaceful and they were surprised that the police charged at them and fired tear gas. The police corralled the protesters before they reached the city centre and after a tense standoff the workers dispersed. Police later confirmed that one woman had been hit by a rubber bullet but claimed that no-one had been hurt.

The following day in a similar incident in Cape Town riot police were brought in to break up an attempted strike at the Green Point World Cup stadium.

Dis-Chem management refuse to negotiate while police harass striking workers: A strike by workers employed by the pharmaceutical chain Dis-Chem unveiled a series of abuses and a clear determination to break their union, the South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) . The union was in dispute with the company over several issues, notably pay. The company refused to negotiate with the union and SACCAWU had to refer the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). The outcome was an Advisory Arbitration Award which ruled that the company should negotiate. When the company refused to adhere to the advisory award, the CCMA granted a certificate which allowed SACCAWU members the right to embark on a protected strike to press for their demands. The strike began on 27 May and was followed by over 2,000 SACCAWU members at more than 40 Dis-Chem Pharmacies nationwide.

On 18 June, 23 Dis-Chem workers in Midrand were arrested and held over the weekend before being released the following Monday without charge. The arrests occurred after striking workers confronted the store and central management for taking photographs of workers on the picket-line. Strike and picket rules clearly stipulate that management should not take photographs of workers on the picket-line. Three more workers were arrested on 23 June and charged with alleged damage to property.

SACCAWU reported that striking workers continued to be harassed by store managers, mall managers and the police. Some workers were assaulted on the picket-line by a store manager in Pretoria. As the strike entered its fourth week Dis-Chem openly stated that even if SACCAWU had 100% membership in the company they were not obliged to negotiate with the union. At a conciliation meeting, the company went further and stated it was not prepared to meet with SACCAWU to seek a resolution to the current strike under any circumstances.

This was consistent with Dis-Chem's firmly anti-union approach. For some time the company had regularly discouraged its employees from joining SACCAWU and actively participating in union activities. In 2009 SACCAWU had to declare a dispute to compel the company to recognise the union.

Government orders police to crush public sector strike: In August, President Zuma ordered police to crush a national strike. On 19 August, police clashed with protesting public sector workers, using rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse strikers demonstrating outside a Soweto hospital. The public sector unions launched their indefinite strike on 18 August to demand an 8.6% pay rise plus a monthly housing allowance of R1,000 (USD142) for all civil servants. More than a million civil servants joined the strike. The government insisted that its debts and the global downturn meant it could not afford to meet union demands and instead offered 7% and R700 (USD99) towards housing. The leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU,) Zwelinzima Vavi, pointed out that President Zuma was earning more than R2.2m.

The dispute ended on 20 October when the unions accepted a 7.5% wage increase backdated to 1 July and an R800 housing allowance.

Strikers dismissed: When motor industry workers went on strike on 1 September in the auto supplies industry and at petrol stations around Durban and Port Shepstone the police responded with brutal harassment and arrests, according to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). The motor workers went on a strike after both the Retail Motor Industry (RMI) and the Fuel Retailers Association (FRA) failed to meet their demands for improved wages and conditions of employment for workers after more than three months. The union, representing some 70,000 members in the South African component, fuel stations, retail franchises and tyre industries, had asked for a 15% wage increase, improvements in severance pay and six months maternity leave. NUMSA particularly objected to the arrest and intimidation of striking workers around Durban and Port Shepstone petrol stations during their legal, protected action.

After a two week strike the two sides finally agreed to an increase of between 9 and 10% – but the FRA and the RMI then dismissed workers who had been on strike.

Tyre manufacturer obstructs collective bargaining: Tyre manufacturer Bridgestone-Firestone walked out of negotiations aimed at resolving a dispute over wages and working conditions. This led to a strike in the tyre and rubber manufacturing industry organised by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) that started on 30 August. Since the start of the negotiations earlier in the year Bridgestone-Firestone had opposed every move towards collective progress. The company even tabled counter-proposals that were lower than those made by the New Tyre Manufacturing Industry Employers' Association (NTMIEA) to which it is affiliated.

Intimidation of strikers at retail chain: On 29 October during a strike at the Pick 'n Pay retail chain workers in Klerksdorp were arrested for singing and shouting slogans on the picket-line. A judge allowed them to continue their picket but told them to keep the noise down. Their union, the South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) also reported that three workers were shot at, one in a drive-by shooting on workers on the picket-line and the other two by mall security. There were no reports of injuries. A further 62 workers were arrested on 30 October and on 2 November all the striking workers in Klerksdorp were arrested, but later released.

The strike was called after months of frustration. SACCAWU submitted proposals on pay and working conditions for 2010 to the company in December 2009 and workers were due to receive their increases at the beginning of March 2010. Nothing happened in March however, and after numerous attempts to resolve the dispute SACCAWU called its 27,000 members out on strike on 29 October. A settlement was reached after two weeks and the strikers returned to work on 11 November.

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