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Trade unions in South Africa


Trade unions in South Africa

Trade unions in South Africa
National trade union organization(s)
National government agency(ies)
Department of Labour
Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration
National Economic Development and Labour Council
Primary trade union legislation
Labour Relations Act

Trade union membership

3.11 million[1]

Percentage of workforce


By industry
  • Agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing: 9.6%
  • Mining and quarrying: 78.5%
  • Manufacturing: 38.3%
  • Electricity, gas and water supply: 55.7%
  • Construction: 10.5%
  • Wholesale and retail trade: 23.7%
  • Transport, storage and communication: 48.2%
  • Financial, insurance, real estate and business service: 24.0%
  • Community, social and personal services: 56.9%
  • Private households with employed persons: 3.4%

International Labour Organization

South Africa is a member of the ILO

Convention ratification
Freedom of Association 19 February 1996
Right to Organise 19 February 1996

Trade unions in South Africa have a history dating back to the 1880s. From the beginning unions could be viewed as a reflection of the racial disunity of the country, with the earliest unions being predominantly for white workers.[2] Through the turbulent years of 1948-1991 trade unions played an important part in developing political and economic resistance, and eventually were one of the driving forces in realising the transition to an inclusive democratic government.

Today trade unions are still an important force in South Africa, with 3.11 million members representing 25.3% of the formal work force.[1] The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is the largest of the three major trade union centres, with a membership of 1.8 million, and is part of the Tripartite alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).


  • Early history 1
  • 1948 - 1991 2
  • Trade unions today 3
    • Labour and HIV/AIDS 3.1
    • Labour Relations Act 3.2
    • Bargaining councils 3.3
    • Agency Shop Agreements 3.4
    • Closed Shop Agreements 3.5
  • References 4

Early history

Early trade unions were often for whites only, with organizations like the black workers was the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), formed in September 1917 by the revolutionary syndicalist International Socialist League (ISL).[3] The IWA merged into the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of Africa (ICU), formed in 1919, in 1920. By the 1930s the South African Trades and Labour Council (SATLC) had united much of the country. The SATLC maintained an explicitly non-racial stance, and accepted affiliation of black trade unions, as well as calling for full legal rights for black trade unionists.[4] Some black unions joined SATLC, while in the 1940s others affiliated with the Council of Non-European Trade Unions, raising it to a peak of 119 unions and 158,000 members in 1945.

In 1946, the CNETU with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party pushed for the African Mine Workers' Strike to become a General Srike. The strike was broken by the police brutality which was part of the rise of the National Party (NP) and their slogan of apartheid as all black trade unions were violently suppressed.

1948 - 1991

By 1954 SATLC was disbanded, and with the formation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). SACTU merged with the Council of Non-European Trade Unions and became the trade union arm of the ANC. The union grew to a membership of 53,000 by 1961, but was driven underground, and for a decade black unionism was again virtually silenced in South Africa.

In 1979 the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed, with the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) being created in the following year.

What was to become one of the largest unions in South Africa, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was created in 1982, and was deeply involved in the political conflict against the ruling National Party. The union embraced four "pillars" of action - armed struggle, mass mobilisation (ungovernability), international solidarity, and underground operation.[5]

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was formed in 1985, and FOSATU merged into it in the same year(more formally known in the teaching industry).

The largest strike up to that date in South Africa's history took place on 1 May 1986, when 1.5 million black workers "stayed away" in a demand for recognition of an official May Day holiday. In the following June up to 200 trade union officials, including Elijah Barayi and Jay Naidoo of the COSATU, and Phiroshaw Camay, the general secretary of the CUSA, were reported to be arrested under a renewed state of emergency.

Also in 1986, CUSA joined with the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (AZACTU) to form the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU), and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi created the United Workers' Union of South Africa (UWUSA), particularly to oppose disinvestment in South Africa. The UWUSA eventually faded from view, but not before revelations in July 1991 that it had collaborated with anti-union employers in a campaign against both COSATU and NACTU activists, and had received at least 1.5 million Rand from the security police.[2]

In 1988 a new Labour Relations Act placed restrictions on labour activities, including giving the Labour Court the power to ban lawful strikes and lock-outs. This was to be short-lived, and negotiations between COSATU, NACTU and the South African Committee on Labour Affairs (SACCOLA) eventually produced a 1991 amendment which effectively repealed the previous powers.

In 1990 SACTU, which had continued underground activities from exile, dissolved and advised its members to join COSATU. COSATU, as a member of the Tripartite alliance with the ANC and SACP, provided material support in the form of strikes and both political and economic unrest, which eventually led to the displacement of the National Party, and the majority victory of the ANC in the 1994 political elections.

Trade unions today

Trade unions are recognized within the 1996 Constitution of South Africa, which provides for the right to join trade unions, and for unions to collectively bargain and strike.[6] This has translated into the Labour Relations Act which established the working framework for both unions and employers. Three institutions have also been created to further the goals of reducing industrial relations conflict, and both eliminating unfair discrimination and redressing past discrimination in the workplace: the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), the Labour Court, and the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).[7]

With the creation of the NACTU with almost 400,000 members including the powerful mineworkers union. All three are affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation.

A fourth national trade union centre was formed in 2003. The Confederation of South African Workers' Unions (CONSAWU) is affiliated with the World Confederation of Labour (WCL).

The 2006 ICFTU Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights noted South Africa:

"Serious violations were reported during the year, including the death of two workers killed by their employer in a wage dispute, and a striking farm worker killed by security guards. Protest strikes and demonstrations met with violent repression, such as the use of rubber bullets, which in the case of striking truck drivers, led to injuries."[8]

Labour and HIV/AIDS

South Africa has one of the largest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, with a 2005 estimate of 5.5 million people living with HIV — 12.4% of the population.[9][10] The trade union movement has taken a role in combating this pandemic. COSATU is a key partner in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a registered charity and political force working to educate and promote understanding about HIV/AIDS, and to prevent new infections, as well as push for greater access to antiretrovirals. COSATU passed a resolution in 1998 to campaign for treatment. "It was clear to the labour movement at that time that its lowest paid members were dying because they couldn’t afford medicines," says Theodora Steel, Campaigns Coordinator at COSATU. "We saw TAC as a natural ally in a campaign for treatment. We passed a formal resolution at our congress to assist and build TAC."[11]

Notwithstanding the formal alliance of COSATU with the ruling ANC party, it has been at odds with the government, calling for the roll-out of comprehensive public access to antiretroviral drugs.[12]

Labour Relations Act

The Labour Relations Act was passed in 1995, and subsequently experienced major amendments in 1996,[13] 1998[14] and 2002.[15] Its stated purpose is to "give effect to section 27 of the Constitution" by regulating organisational rights of trade unions, promoting collective bargaining, regulating the right to strike and the recourse to lockouts, as well as providing mechanisms for dispute resolution and the establishment of Labour Court and Labour Appeal Court as superior courts, "with exclusive jurisdiction to decide matters arising from the Act". The act also addresses employee participation in decision-making, and international law obligations in respect to labour relations.[16]

The Labour Relations Act does not apply to the South African National Defence Force, the National Intelligence Agency, or the South African Secret Service.

Bargaining councils

Bargaining councils are formed by registered trade unions and employers’ organisations. They deal with collective agreements, attempt to solve labour disputes, and make proposals on labour policies and laws. As well, they may administer pension funds, sick pay, unemployment and training schemes, and other such benefits for their members.[17] The Amended Labour Relations Act also notes that these councils are to "extend the services and functions of the bargaining council to workers in the informal sector and home workers."

Agency Shop Agreements

Agency Shop Agreements are struck by a majority trade union (either one union, or a coalition of unions representing the majority of workers employed) and an employer or employers' organisation. This agreement requires employers to deduct a fee from the wages of non-union workers to "ensure that non-union workers, who benefit from the union’s bargaining efforts, make a contribution towards those efforts".[18]

Permission from the employee is not required for deductions to be assessed. However, if the employee is a conscientious objector, that is refuses membership in a trade union on the grounds of conscience, she or he may request that their fees are paid to a fund administered by the Department of Labour.

Closed Shop Agreements

Closed shop agreements, which require all zodwa workers in the covered workplace to join unions, can be struck if 2 thirds of the workers have voted in favour of the agreement. Workers must join the union or face dismissal. In addition, "if a union expels a member or refuses to allow a new worker to become a union member , and if this expulsion or refusal is in accordance with the union’s constitution or is for a fair reason, then the employer will have to dismiss the worker. This dismissal is not considered unfair."[19] Conscientious objectors may not be dismissed for refusing to join the union.

Restrictions on closed shops include the requirement that workers are not compelled to be trade union members before obtaining employment, and that dues collected from employees are only used to "advance or protect the socio-economic interests of workers."


  1. ^ a b "Labour force survey" (PDF). Statistics South Africa. Retrieved 2006-06-23. 
  2. ^ a b c  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Lewis, Jon (November 1984). Industrialisation and Trade Union Organization in South Africa 1924-1955: The Rise and Fall of... (ebook). Cambridge University Press. p. 1.  
  5. ^ "NUM History". National Union of Mineworkers. Retrieved 2006-07-05. 
  6. ^ "Labour relations".  
  7. ^ Butler, Anthony (2004). Contemporary South Africa. NY: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 61.  
  8. ^ "South Africa". Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2006). Retrieved 2006-07-12. 
  9. ^ "2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic".  
  10. ^ "Country profile - South Africa".  
  11. ^ "Stepping back from the edge" (PDF). UNAIDS. Retrieved 2006-07-11. 
  12. ^ "South African Union Boss Demands Government Supply Anti-AIDS Drugs". The Retrieved 2006-07-11. 
  13. ^ Labour Relations Amendment Act 42 of 1996
  14. ^ Labour Relations Amendment Act 127 of 1998
  15. ^ Labour Relations Amendment Act 12 of 2002
  16. ^ "Amended Labour Relations Act". Department of Labour. Archived from the original on 2006-02-22. Retrieved 2006-06-24. 
  17. ^ "28. Powers and functions of bargaining council". Amended Labour Relations Act. Archived from the original on 2006-09-24. Retrieved 2006-06-24. 
  18. ^ "Basic Guide to Agency Shop Agreements". Department of Labour. Archived from the original on 2006-02-11. Retrieved 2006-06-24. 
  19. ^ "Basic Guide to Closed Shop Agreements". Department of Labour. Archived from the original on 2006-02-22. Retrieved 2006-06-24. 
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