The dualistic approach to labour relations in contemporary South Africa: A systems theory perspective 

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In this academic opinion, it is proposed that South Africa is applying a dualistic approach to labour relations, where bargained corporatism is officially followed and ideological collectivism unofficially. South Africa is a member state of the International Labour Organisation, which is committed to bargained corporatism as a labour relations approach. This approach reflects the negotiation of labour regulations within which the employer and employee can agree on unique employment contracts. These labour regulations also distinguish between unfair and fair discrimination, according to the Employment Equity Act (55 of 1998). An employer may only discriminate fairly in the application of inherent requirements to determine suitable qualified employees, and in applying affirmative action in pursuit of employment equity.

Therefore, the employer reserves the right to identify a suitable candidate for employment to meet the position’s inherent requirements, but the employer may not discriminate directly or indirectly against such suitable candidates except for affirmative action purposes. This principle is in line with the labour relations approach of bargained corporatism, where the employer must meet certain minimum requirements for fair employment and may not unfairly discriminate against candidates and employees, but may set prerequisites for employees based on the inherent workplace requirements. In fact, the labour regulations create a playing field within which the employer can develop a unique labour relationship – a game plan – to allow market competitiveness.

The country has been governed since 1994 by a political party that is in a tripartite alliance, which includes the largest South African trade union federation. The political ideology pursued by this political party includes the labour interests of this labour organisation. Two prominent political ideological aspects are currently part of the political agenda and dialogue of the ruling party, being “total equality” and “radical socio-economic transformation”. From a labour relations approach, the focus on socio-economic equality can create an imbalance, where the right to appoint suitable qualified employees to fulfil the inherent requirements of the position is limited by the pursuit of total equality. This political ideological approach is inconsistent with the country’s official labour relations approach and could jeopardise its status as member state of the International Labour Organisation. The approach in itself is not irregular, since it forms part of the political party’s independent operations. It does become irregular when these political ideologies are applied, while inconsistent with societal norms and, more specifically, the norms of the labour relations system.

The power balance between the employee and employer is based on the system principle, where the legislation and regulations are negotiated by the parties involved in this system, based on the various labour relations interests (Forsyth and Sutherland 2006). The three main players in the bargaining process – the employees with their union representatives, the employers with their employers’ organisation representatives and the state through the Department of Employment and Labour as its main representative – form part of this three-tier labour relations system. Of course, this system does not function in isolation, as other systems, such as the socio-economic and political systems, mutually influence it. However, according to this system approach, each system is applied by unique processes and regulated by system-specific legislation (Casti 1981). In doing so, each system’s main function should remain its main focus. In the case of the South African labour relations system, it should abide by the pursuit of economic development, social justice, labour peace and the democratisation of the workplace. A direct blending of system interests can have significant disruptive effects, as the balance of interests within a system can be disrupted. 

Specific labour legislation sets out the labour regulations and extends the minimum prerequisites of a labour relationship that can be considered fair. Combining different, and also conflicting, system norms and values can disrupt the labour relations system to such an extent that it becomes dysfunctional. This principle does not ignore the overlap and interaction between systems, but emphasises the danger where system interests and norms are selectively applied to favour a specific role-player. Therefore, although labour and politics are essentially intertwined, different regulations are set for the functioning of these systems (Karvonen 2007). Political ideology is largely about how to grant power and to what purpose it should be used (Rosenberg 1956). From the South African context, as a democratic country, this means that a ruling political party in principle becomes the determinant of power. This does not happen without prescriptions, as the political system, such as the labour relations system, is based on regulations. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) determines the political method in the country within which the ruling political power must be determined. This system allows that a political party can generate goals from promises made during elections to motivate voters to vote for the party. The political party’s own ideological goals may not necessarily be applied if they contradict the constitutional regulations. This may mean that the ruling political party has obtained a voter mandate that contradicts the current constitutional system. 

The implication of such a situation is that a group within the political party with specific beliefs, equitably considers this group’s goals – trade union goals – to become the party’s obligation in exchange for the group’s votes. According to Tabernero, Chambel, Curral and Arana (2009), these expectations and obligations refer to a normative contract; an informal collective agreement. In the case where the political party is successful and becomes the ruling party of the country, this labour group expects the normative expectations to become state policy; a social contract. Contrary to expectations of a normative contract, which is informal, the social contract is societal norms that are formally regarded as the obligation of government to all citizens (Riley 2013), usually by legislation. Informal, vague and, sometimes, haphazard promises made as part of the voting campaigns in the political sphere have now changed to policy commitments in the formal labour relations system. 

Labour organisations’ interest lies with the employee and therefore this group strives for more power in the labour relationship (Esping-Andersen 2017). The duties of unions are to provide individual and collective representation to union members, to protect their rights and to try to negotiate the employee’s interests. The employer and their representative organisations again have the right to appoint and dismiss employees fairly. Setting prerequisites for job applicants is part of these employer rights, allowing the employee to share the inherent requirements of the position. Trade unions also want more powers in determining redundancy, where it should rather be a principle of consensus, than an employer’s right to dismiss fairly (Bogg 2016).

Although a balance between equality, through affirmative action, and inherent requirements of a position, through the identification of suitable qualified employees, is protected by the current South African labour relations approach, equality is informally set above inherent requirements, particularly in the public sector. Pursuit of total equality goals is often placed above the traditional definition of suitable qualified candidates and key positions are mostly earmarked in these sectors for the deployment to apply “radical socio-economic transformation”. This approach unofficially pursues a collective ideological approach – ideological collectivism – as a labour relations approach, rather than the official bargained corporatism.

Ideological collectivism in South Africa exhibits the characteristics of prioritising total equality, especially with regard to employment equity in high-level and professional positions in all organisations. This pursuit of equality is linked to the political ideologies of the ruling political party and its alliance partners. It is also linked to the majority support of the ideologies as well as the support of labour organisations, as alliance partners. The political will of the collective consequently dominates the constitutional and labour law framework of South Africa. This approach includes inconsistencies with the current and official labour relations approach – bargained corporatism – which makes the application of ideological collectivism unofficial.

The application of ideological collectivism is already established in the South African public sector and this is not going to change easily. Rather, there will be collective efforts, in particular by the labour organisations, to consider and adopt legislative amendments where the employer has less control over who is appointed and dismissed, where consensus is required by negotiations for this. In doing so, this approach is legally justified as an attempt to replace the current bargained corporatism as a labour relations approach. The risk is that this approach – ideological collectivism – can cause international opposition that could end in the loss of member state status at the International Labour Organisation. Meanwhile, it can be assumed that a dualistic approach will continue to be realised in the South African society.

Keywords: bargained corporatism; dualistic approach; ideological collectivism; labour regulations; labour relations approach; political ideology


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Die dualistiese benadering tot arbeidsverhoudinge in die hedendaagse Suid-Afrika: ’n Sisteemteoretiese perspektief

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    K.B.van Niekerk

    Gevangenes moet groentetuine maak.
    Dit was lankal terug by Leeukop en nog ander gedoen om die tronkkombuise van groente te voor sien. Die gevangenes betaal sodoende vir hul tronkverblyf.
    Iemand in 'n tronk het self sy/haar menseregte verloor.

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