TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Trade Unions in South Africa
TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA
A labor union is an organized profession or trade association formed to further and
protect the rights and interest of its members. The primary roles of the labor unions are to
advance the members interest in respect to benefits, working conditions, and wages. Labor
unions in South Africa started in the 1880s, and it has a long history of the first union being
associated with the racial disunity, and it was predominantly for the white worker.
Labor and trade unions have a significant role in developing the economic and political
resistance, and they were the leading powerful driving forces that led to the attainment of
democracy in South Africa. The unions make up 25.3% which is 3.11 million people of the
workforce in South Africa. There are three main labor unions in South Africa with the Congress
of South African Trade Union (COSATU) being the largest union with 2.2 million in 2012 which
is in coalation with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National
Congress (NAC) which is in power (Buhlungu, 2010). This paper contains a comprehensive
explanation of labor unions in South Africa, how they respond to the labor broking, how they
contribute or constrain job creation in South Africa.
How the trade union have lost their power
In the past, the primary function of trade unions in South Africa was associated with
politics as the unions were fighting for democracy. COSATU which was founded in 1985 played
a substantial part in the fight against the division of people in South Africa association with their
skin color (Webster, Lambert, & Bezuidenhout, 2008). The union conducted some general
strikes and paralyzing wages, which enabled it to gain support all over the country. The
companies today are playing some significant roles in ensuring that the interest and welfare of
the workers are considered. However, the unions are facing different challenges that are making
them divert their main goals. The unions are weak in different areas.
TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA 3
COSATU and general unions have a weakness in the formation of board coalitions that
will help them speak in one voice. Many movements have emerged, and they consider
themselves as part of the broad anti-globalization movement in the country, but there has been
little interaction between them. They have been unemployment crisis facing the labor unions
(Buhlungu, 2010). Over the years, the level of unemployment in South African has been
increasing despite the efforts of the trade unions. According to the report that was released in
2012, the rate of unemployment was 24.9%, and the labor absorption rate was around 40.9%.
According to the South African Trade Union Congress, there have been grim prospects for
employment growth in the formal sector as the economy faces economy shrinking and the
technological advancement is posing a threat to the labor force.
The unions, for example, COSATU, are unsuccessful in gaining support for their
economic goals and visions. The economy calls for a collective effort to solve the problems in
the workplace ("rise or fall of trade unions in South Africa: The Marikana incident," 2012). The
union standing alone cannot bring changes without the support of other movements in the
industry. The unions were losing power due to their individualism and its only unity that can
help them stand stiff. The unions were affected by the developments and trends in the global
economy at large. Apartheid was also a problem that was contributing to lack of unity among the
The other factor that is showing how the unions are losing their power is the new
technological advancement is that the organizations are replacing their employees with
machines. Over the years the technology has been posing a threat to the labor unions by reducing
the entry of new members. As a matter of factor, the South African trade union has reported a
decrease in registration of new members. Many citizens in South Africa have shifted their
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TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA 4
interest from employment to self-employment. It is one of the factors that are reducing the power
of the South African unions in recent years.
The third element that is displaying how the power of trade unions have decreased is the
conflict of power which is the ability to influence a group of people with a common interest
toward attainment of a set goal and objective. Two forms of power are affecting the trade unions
today are the structural power and association power (Webster, Lambert, & Bezuidenhout,
2008). Structural power is as a result of the position of the worker in the economic system
whereas association power is as a result of the corporate organization of workers. The labor
unions have been having conflict among themselves on which union is powerful than the other.
Besides that, the leaders in the union have self-interest instead of following the interest of the
Economic restructuring and transformation.
In 1996 the National Development and Labor Council (NEDLAC) also relied on the
report that was released by SAF which urged on the growth through redistribution (NACTU,
FEDSAL and COSATU. 1996). The SAF report triggered a debate on the national issue in
macroeconomic policy, and it exposed the leadership and the lower-level activists to participate
meaningfully. The unions took measures to adopt on the global advancement in the economy.
The unions such as COSATU and its affiliates advanced their gears to adopt the new
strategies of flexibility through embracing the advancements. In 1996, the government unveiled a
strategy of gearing these advancements. The strategies included the microeconomics plan,
employment, redistribution and growth plans which embraced the ideology of neoclassical of
minimalist and a market which is free (Buhlungu, 2010). In 1990, many unions invested their
resources in capacity building for engagement in policymaking at the national level as opposed
TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA 5
to the reduced workplace level. This change called for massive investment which had a negative
impact on the unions, and it cut their power besides demolishing the weak unions. Since 1990
many sectors were affected by new advancement which hit them hard and led to job loss. As a
result, many unions recorded a decline in their membership size in the preceding years and only
five unions that marked progress. The sectors that maintained their high membership include
SAMWU, NEHAWU, SATAWU/SARHWU and SADTU as compared to counterparties in the
private sectors, especially in the Manufacturing industry.
Response of union to global flexibility and externalization of work and labor
COSATU was the first union in South Africa to accept the reality of the current global
trends in the economy back in the year 1997 which shaped trends and forces in the global
economy. According to September commission (1997), these forces were felt by the “larger
state” of apartheid opened the doors for South Africa in the forces of economics internationally.
The federation gave various responses, and one of them involved the managerial strategies at the
workplace level (Buhlungu, 2010). The alliance expresses this changes in different level by
applying strategies to achieve its vision on economic matters. The unions responded in the
The unions engaged themselves with tripartite Alliance, the government and the ANC. It
was one of the engagement strategies to acquire power that would help the unions to withstand
the demanding changes and trends. The unions also engaged themselves in different levels of
government and institutions. The government levels and institutions include the provincial, local
government, parliamentary portfolio committees, ministries, and departments. The unions also
used the organization bargaining power and strengths to be able to adopt and withstand the
TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA 6
demanding changes. Besides that, the unions also associated themselves with the intellectuals,
churches, NGOs among others. From the mentioned engagement strategies that were adopted by
the unions, it shifted the decision-making process from the leaders of local associations at the
workplace. It also emphasized the need for global advancement that called for a high level of
sophistication and rapid response by top officials.
Labor broking was used by companies to acquire cheaper labor services. This process of
using brokers to hire workers created a triangular employment relationship. The agents used to
cut some share on the salary of the hired employee which the unions considered to be unfair and
they were against it. The rapid increase in the labor broking since 1994 was motivated by lack of
employment relations act. The law was to enhance a joint and several liabilities for unfair
How the unions are representing the interest of working class
The unions have been expressing the will and interest of it workers satisfactory. They
have been conducting strikes to defend the wages and the interest of the workers. Since 1980, the
labor unions have been playing an integral role in the transformation of working conditions,
salaries and employees’ welfare in South Africa. The trade unions came forward to insist on the
amendment of Labor Relations Act(LRA) of 1995, the employment act of equity of 1998, skills
development act of 1999 and the Basic conditions of employment act of 1997. The laws have
significantly defended the employees’ welfare from both the private and the public sector across
Also, the unions have come up with councils of bargaining that is made up by the
trade unions and the employer of the various organizations both private and public. The council
responsibility was to be engaged in the legislative system of wage determination and collective
TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA 7
bargaining in the labor market of South Africa. Many workers join the unions to benefit from the
privileges associated with union membership such as job security and protection. COSATU and
its affiliates have been in the front line to fight and bargain on real wages, better working
conditions and the overall welfare of its members.
Contributions or constraints of unions on job creation in South Africa
Unions have played many roles in ensuring that the level of unemployment reduces in
South Africa. They called for segmentation of casuals, and permanent workers and the division
promoting employment. They have also sent their individuals who represent the members of the
division of labor among the permanent workers and the casuals ("Employment Creation and
Welfare," 2011). Also, the textile and the clothing industry has applied various forms of
restructuring by adopting new global trends. They shifted from making to buying already
manufactured goods from abroad, for example, China and this led to a huge job loss of union
The unions have actively represented its member for the benefit of the whole association.
Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) have been working to find the solutions of
unemployment among the members of the South Africans (Freund, 2007). These unions also
defend its members in case of dismissal without following the set procedure stated by the law.
They have employed lawyers who represent its members against the court if they are held liable
by law. In South Africa, many unemployed youths need the assistance of this unions to get and
The unions also have started collaborating with some companies, stores, and business to
find the solution to the increasing rate of unemployment of a vast number of the graduates. The
unions have also fought for equality in the job markets. The unions are campaigning for the
TRADE UNIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA 8
female gender to be offered equal opportunity in the job market by companies. It is something
which can be recommended since a country to develop it needs to incorporate all the genders.
The economy is the key indicate of development in a country and the government, unions and
the citizens need to take their responsibility in ensuring its prosperity.
In conclusion, the trade unions in South Africa have undergone growth and development.
Despite the racism challenge known as apartheid, the labor unions have been able to stand firm
in representing its members adequately. COSATU which is the biggest union in South Africa has
been leading the devolution in the country (Freund, 2007). The unions have made a lot of
achievement one of them being the fight against apartheid and democracy. The issue of
unemployment is a challenge facing developing countries, and it calls for the unions and
government to join hands to overcome the problem. Although the labor movements are not
united together, they are doing their level best to maintain their goals and vision. The
government of South African need to come up with flexible rules and regulation that will
promote collaboration with the trade unions.
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8. Employment Creation and Welfare. (2011). Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism.
Buhlungu, S. (2010). A paradox of victory: COSATU and the democratic transformation in
South Africa. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Freund, W. (2007). Organized Labor in the Republic of South Africa: History and Democratic
Transition. Trade Unions and the Coming of Democracy in Africa, 199-227.
The rise or fall of trade unions in South Africa: The Marikana incident. (2012). Retrieved from
Webster, E., Lambert, R., & Bezuidenhout, A. (2008). Grounding globalization: Labour in the
age of insecurity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.