In the build-up to Friday 27 September 2019, South Africans became exceedingly nervous as the planned banking sector strike almost became a reality.
The Labour Court upheld an Application to prevent this unprotected strike, which almost shut down the South African banking sector. Had the strike been given the green light, it may have gone down as the biggest strike in defence of jobs involving South Africa’s big banks and could have caused consumers to have no access to digital channels, including Banking Apps, Internet Banking, USSD and ATM’s. It was predicted that the planned strike might have had devastating consequences and could have led to an unprecedented cash crisis. SASBO even advised bank customers to ensure they have enough cash to sustain them through the planned strike.
An Application to prevent the strike was however brought by Business Unity South Africa. They argued that the industrial action was unprotected since the certificate authorising it, issued in 2017, was outdated.
On Wednesday 25 September, Advocate Alistair Franklin therefore argued in the Labour court, for the applicants, to declare Friday’s planned mass action unlawful on the basis that the respondents had failed to adhere to section 77 of the Labour Relations Act.
Labour Court Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker said in her ruling: “It is declared that the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu and the South African Society of Bank Officials, Sasbo, have failed to comply with the provisions of Section 77 (1) of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995.”
The right to strike is enshrined in our Constitution and is fiercely protected by trade unions. This right is however limited in certain circumstances and specific procedures need to be followed. Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act regulates the procedure that needs to be followed in socio-economic protest action through a process of consultation at Nedlac between Labour, Business and Government.
The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) is the vehicle by which Government, labour, business and community organisations seek to cooperate, through problem-solving and negotiation, on economic, labour and development issues and related challenges facing the country.
In considering whether or not a notice is valid under Section 77, one of the most important factors is whether it relates to a socio-economic interest, rather than a mutual interest. Matters of mutual interest (generally wages and conditions of service) between employees and employers do not fall within the scope of section 77. Disputes on these interests are dealt with through internal procedures, at a Bargaining Council, or through the CCMA.
The planned strike was in response to mass banking retrenchments earlier this year, caused by a more digital banking approach. The move towards digitalisation is a global trend, happening across all industries, and will most definitely fall under socio-economic interest. SASBO is alarmed at the increasing reliance on technology, fearing many jobs will be shed in the process. Standard Bank already announced in March 2019 that it would shut down 91 branches across the country.
Cosatu-affiliated SASBO also contends that workers across the financial sector should be upskilled, not retrenched.
But are we in the clear? Unfortunately, not. The latest judgment, does not preclude SASBO from filing a fresh application for a strike with the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). The Application might take a few more months to come to fruition which means it might coincide with the festive season when banks and other financial institutions are in a peak business period. Once again leaving consumers in dire straits.