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Redemptive Practices in Labour Relations

Rut Cloete is the Managing Director at Mediant Solutions, a payroll bureau specialising in assisting companies that fall within the jurisdiction of a bargaining council. She loves helping companies “colour-in-between the lines” in their respective industries – simplifying processes, building bridges and sifting through chaos to create order. The following is a summary of her interview with Ziwani’s Lise-Marie Keyser.


LK: Rut, before we delve into this very important topic, can you please give us a summary of your career journey?

RC: Well, I was quite set on studying medicine and then becoming a missionary, but God had different plans! After spending some time at YWAM, I came back to South Africa and met my husband, had children, and by December 2005 ended up at Mediant Solutions. I must admit, I hated it at first. I never wanted to do office work – I wanted to be out there ‘meeting people’s real needs’.

Little did I know that working with employers and employees to resolve labour conflicts, and promoting just and fair labour practices in South Africa, is definitely ‘meeting people’s real needs’. In the transport industry there can be lot of political tension around these issues, and we often encounter hostility between different parties. We try to restore relationships and stir thoughts in a positive direction, one client at a time.

LK: You are the Managing Director of Mediant Solutions, that specialises in payroll administration for companies that fall under the jurisdiction of a bargaining council. Please tell us a bit more about what bargaining councils are, and how they work?

RC: There are more than 30 different bargaining councils in South Africa. A bargaining council is formed when employer organisations and representative trade unions in a specific industry register one with the Registrar of Labour Relations, which then empowers the parties to negotiate terms and conditions for that specific industry. This is a great concept because it almost guarantees industry peace, and it levels the playing field by determining labour costs.

LK: So, the main purpose of a bargaining council is to be a representative body that exercises jurisdiction in respect of conditions of employment in a specific industry, in order to maintain labour stability. Has this strategy been effective in the South African labour market?

RC: Yes and no. In the Road Freight Industry, wage negotiations have been concluded peacefully since 2012 (meaning there has been no strike action). On the contrary, in the Metal and Engineering Industries, wage negotiations have not been so peaceful – in fact their bargaining council’s representation has proved lacking, and they’ve lost many of their powers as a result.

Another aspect is the politics involved. Bargaining councils are supposed to offer fair representation of both employers and employees, but in reality, the representation is skewed towards employees. For example, employees can register any number of complaints against an employer, whereas employers can only register a complaint in the case where an employee left the company without working their full notice term. Complaints registered by employers generally do not get attended to, whereas employee complaints are treated very seriously. When this happens, it creates a sense of resentment and can end up undermining the cohesive role a bargaining council is supposed to play within a particular industry.

LK: You focus mainly on the transport and logistics industry. Has there been any significant shifts lately?

RC: Over the last ten years, drivers have received massive salary increases in comparison to other industries. In 2010, a code 14 truck driver earned R1,233.72 per week, and now the same driver earns R2,775.23 (the minimum wage). On top of that, employers are obliged to pay subsistence allowances, overtime, and double rates on Sundays and public holidays.

Which all sounds fair – until you start doing the calculations. Long-distance truck drivers are on the road most of the day and part of the night. Depending on their routes they usually go home every third week – in other words, they work the maximum allowable hours every month (sometimes more). Therefore if you calculate their ‘real’ minimum wage, it is about R32,000 per month, which is unaffordable for most transport companies.

What makes it more challenging, is that by law these drivers are still classified as ‘blue collar workers’. They are highly experienced employees, well paid, and are held responsible for the truck and the load itself, which can be valued at millions of Rands. Yet they have to complete daily timesheets to record where they stopped, why they stopped, and what they did all day. If long-distance truck drivers could be reclassified in terms of their employment category, it would solve a number of issues.

LK: Over the many years that you’ve worked as a Human Rersources practitioner and Labour consultant, have you found it easy or difficult to integrate your Christian faith into your work?

RC: I enjoy payroll because there is a right way and a wrong way – the figures need to add up, and if there has been a mistake you can correct it. HR isn’t so straightforward because you deal with people. You can lose hope when you see justice subverted for the sake of gaining political power, and you need to be reminded of what is important in eternity – such as small acts of kindness. Yet working in this field presents daily opportunities to experience God’s redemption in difficult situations.

For example, one client wanted to introduce an incentive scheme for their drivers, but had to get approval from the bargaining council. The process entailed submitting loads of documents, including proof that the drivers hadn’t been coerced into agreement. Unfortunately, a large folder was misplaced (that contained handwritten notes by the drivers), which would have derailed the whole process. It was a major crisis, and after searching everywhere all we could do was pray. That night, God showed the Operations manager in a dream where the folder was hidden, and we found it!

As another example, I once represented a client at an arbitration meeting relating to a patently unjust case. I was one woman on my own, and the odds were against me. What happens is that trade union officials often try to disrupt these meetings – they arrive late on purpose, they bring along many colleagues so as to outnumber other parties, they interrupt every sentence, or agressively contradict every statement made by another party without any proof. I prayed for God’s weight of authority to be on me as I presented the case, and He was faithful. Justice prevailed.

LK: There seems to be a lack of trust between employers, trade unions and employees. What could be done to improve labour relations in this industry?

RC: Employers and their employees in the transport and logistics industry mostly have very good relationships. In my experience, the trade unions create the conflict – they have lost touch with their members, they do not know the Main Agreement (the collective agreement set out by the bargaining council) well enough, and they have little to no understanding of running a business profitably. This means that although they can play a positive role in labour relations, they often miss the opportunity, because they are still stuck in their old ways of being aggressive and suspicious towards employers.

A partial solution to this challenge would be to reclassify long-distance drivers, as I mentioned earlier. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act has an earnings threshold, and as soon as someone earns more, certain rules do not apply to them (such as being paid overtime). There would be a lot less record-keeping involved, and it would raise their status as employees because instead of a fluctuating wage based on hours worked, they would earn fixed salaries.

LK: In general, the narrative surrounding labour in South Africa is quite negative. Can you perhaps share an experience of a labour negotiation that worked out really well for all parties concerned?

RC: I recently had a client who was negotiating a new incentive scheme with their +-100 employees. Emotions were running high, with the trade union vehemently opposing every suggestion made by the employer and placing ridiculous demands on the table. The employer decided to focus on open, transparent communication with their employees, and established a company-wide, mobile-based communication platform. Through a lot of patience, they also managed to form a driver’s committee that meets once a month.

Interestingly, they discovered that most of the issues were really easy to address, once they knew what these were. For example, the drivers told them, “We don’t want to fill up at that garage because there is always a long queue, we rather want to fill up at this garage because they have really great service.” Or, “On this route, we really want to stop over at this particular place.” By addressing these issues, they won over their employees’ hearts, despite the added challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, there has been a complete change in atmosphere at the company. The trade union has lost almost all their members, the employees are happy and often send messages of gratitude to management, and the incentive scheme has been implemented.

As another example, I represented the owner of a small courier company a while ago. Their two main clients (a bank and a cellphone service provider) both reneged on their contracts, and the business was plunged into financial difficulty. The owner decided to take a salary cut, and played open cards with his 15 employees – showing them the accounts every month, and explaining what actions he had taken to generate income or to recover some of the debt.

As a result, there was a close-knit culture in the business, despite the fact that the employees were not even paid the minimum wage, never mind overtime. He was three years behind with his annual returns to the bargaining council, but because his employees accompanied him to the meetings, he ended up getting an unheard of 12-month settlement agreement. I’m glad to say that the company has recovered and is now growing fast.

LK: Worldwide, industries that facilitate the movement of people and goods are experiencing great challenges. How are local employers in this industry dealing with these challenges?

RC: The transport companies are in a very difficult situation. Their biggest expenses are labour and fuel, and neither of these are within their control.

LK: Do you have any practical advice for those who want to make a positive contribution to labour relations in South Africa?

RC: I think it is important for employers to:

  • Realise that good intentions cannot make up for ignorance. Especially the smaller companies should do their homework, know the legal requirements and follow due process.
  • Be careful in making appointments. When the right people are in the right positions, it makes managing relationships so much easier.
  • Focus on fostering a culture of open, transparent communication. This creates an environment where people feel heard and appreciated, and increases the level of trust.

I hope that trade unions realise what a positive impact they can have on labour relations. If they could be better educated in business matters, it would help the industry immensely – not only in calling out those employers who really are treating their employees unfairly, but also in promoting job creation, job stability and economic growth.

Rut Cloete

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