The strike by the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa at Eskom recently required a suspension of disbelief that it was happening at all. There were many reasons for this.

The strike was unlawful because Eskom is an “essential service”. The right to strike is a constitutional right afforded to all workers in terms of Section 23(2)(c) of the Constitution. However, although the right to strike is a fundamental right, it has to be balanced against the equally important need to balance this right with other fundamental rights, such as the right to food, water and health care. 

The Labour Relations Act, 1995 (LRA) has therefore placed certain limitations on the right to strike. In terms of Section 65(d)(1) any person engaged in an essential service may not take part in a strike.

The result is that strikes in essential services are unprotected under the LRA, so essential workers who participate in such strikes can be dismissed for misconduct and can be held liable for delict and for contractual damages.

A dispute of interest, namely, a wage dispute, may be referred to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration or relevant Bargaining Council (as is the case for Eskom) for binding arbitration, if the dispute is not resolved at conciliation. 

So, some employees of Eskom chose to embark on an unprotected strike while Eskom is in a crisis that threatens to shut down the economy. Eskom had to implement stage 6 load shedding partly in response to the unavailability of striking employees.

The respective unions pleaded that they had not instigated the strike; it was the initiative of the members and they just had to serve their members’ interests as best they could. That may be, but we have no idea of the extent to which the union leadership tried to explain to their members how dreadful they and their members appeared to a besieged public in the circumstances.

As is common in South African labour relations, some employees intimidated those who came to work, further exacerbating the energy crisis. Some workers were threatened, others were assaulted.

South Africans looked on without sympathy or pity as the unions demanded a 15% increase for workers who would be considered to be an aristocracy. They are employed, they are probably better paid than their private sector counterparts, and they have been earning salaries and been uninterruptedly employed during Covid. Consequently, they have been protected from much of the worst economic crisis.

Eskom offered a 5,3% increase, which was probably too high.  Yet the unions eventually won a 7% increase out of Eskom, we understand at the behest of the ANC government worthies who desperately wanted the strike to be resolved. In addition to the salary increase, they were given a R400 per month housing allowance – all at a cost of R1billion over the length of the agreement, which Eskom says it (for which read “we”) can’t afford.

As at 31 March 2020, Eskom had 44 772 employees although that figure is likely to have changed somewhat in the past two years. Cape Talk interviewed Eskom National Spokesman, Sikonathi Mantshantsha, on 9 February 2020: an interview which was transcribed by mybroadband.

Eskom was massively overstaffed, Mantshantsha said. Eskom could do nothing about it because of the government’s resistance to any staff cuts; the company’s hands were tied.

Mantshantsha said an Eskom staff audit conducted in September 2018 revealed that the company had 16,000 more employees than the company needed. 16,000!

‘The reality of the matter is that the last call comes from the shareholder in any organisation, and Eskom is no different,’ said Mantshantsha.

‘In this instance, the shareholder happens to be the government [which said no employees may be retrenched].’

‘Eskom has indeed had a lot of people that should never have been here, and indeed in the government which should never have been there,’ he said.

Mantshantsha referred to the consequences of poor leadership and mismanagement, load-shedding and a crippling debt burden, damaged infrastructure as a result of years of neglect, corruption and sabotage.

Well, four years later the situation is the same but much, much worse.

One of management’s most difficult functions in managing a business successfully is the occasional retrenchment of staff. This may be necessary because of a need to reduce costs, or because different skills are needed, or some skills become redundant due to a change in technology, because of a change in the way in which the business operates.

It is never a decision management should take lightly, but often the failure to retrench leads to the failure of the enterprise.

An admission was made recently by Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer: while many staff had suitable qualifications, many did not have the practical training and experience to do the jobs required of them. We all know that a professional or technical qualification is light years away from what one still has to learn in the way of practical skills under the tutelage of superiors in order to do a job properly.

Eskom obviously needs to dismiss and/or retrench staff. After an unprotected and nasty strike, backed by seemingly obscene demands, resulting in a wage deal that Eskom cannot afford, maybe Eskom should dismiss those who left themselves open to dismissal by striking in the first place.

It would be cheaper than retrenchment and entirely justified. The very real consequence, however, is that there is likely to be more sabotage. However, Eskom management must not be hindered by government in correcting the balance, sad as it may be on an individual level.

Many South Africans will come away from this ruinous degree of load shedding in disgust that the striking Eskom staff could not show a necessary civic-mindedness, given the problems they exacerbated for other South Africans and for the country as a whole.

The shareholder needs to let management do what is necessary to trim a bloated and often poorly performing staff. But we – the actual shareholders – won’t be able to do so. Once again it will be government which will refuse to act so that jobs are not lost. 

Unless the government understands that cutting jobs is sometimes necessary to run a successful business, it can forget about its dream of being a capable state. And that includes its proposed new “competitor” to Eskom – Eskom 2.0


editor

Rants professionally to rail against the illiberalism of everything. Broke out of 17 years in law to pursue my classical music passion and run the Joburg Philharmonic, but had to work with musicians. Working with composer Karl Jenkins was a treat. Used to camping in the middle of nowhere. Have 2 sons for whom no girl is good enough, says mom.