PUBLICATION: Mail & Guardian, 28 Jan 2011


An ongoing threat to labour relations in South Africa is the parochial attitude of government, employers and some in the human resources profession.

Issues of workplace discrimination, absenteeism, low productivity, adversarial workplace relations and a growing litigious culture are a global phenomenon. And although South Africa certainly faces some pressing challenges, our attitude towards how unique we are stands in the way of progress.

Professor Barney Jordaan is emphatic that labour issues like abuse of sick leave, low productivity, low employee literacy and even workplace discrimination issues are not unique to South Africa. On workplace equality issues, Jordaan says that government’s approach to assessing compliance with the requirements of the Employment Equity Act leaves much to be desired.

It is more concerned with assessing companies’ demographics than looking at some of the other factors that are statutorily required to be considered when assessing whether employers are making reasonable progress in promoting equity. These include labour turnover (ie, availability of jobs), the skills required for available positions, financial (affordability) considerations and the availability of the required skills in the relevant labour market.

“This ‘jackboot’ approach to equity and affirmative action is not doing the country any favours and makes no sense. The Employment Equity Act is more sophisticated than this and allows for appointments based on competency while still addressing past inequalities within the labour force,” explains Jordaan.

The department of labour’s obsession with numbers has also led to a natural resistance from the private sector, which Jordaan says would be greatly reduced if the law were applied as it was intended and the department provided more support and guidance to employers and less bluster and threats. However, the private sector is also not without culpability. Jordaan points out that the role of HR in South Africa is not regarded as having the same importance as it does internationally.

“The weakness with HR locally is that it is often viewed as a glorified personnel position. We are seeing underskilled people filling positions where they are expected to give legal advice to line managers when they are not equipped to do so. Too few HR folk have proper employment relations and conflict management training, are not skilled on the importance of dialogue and mediation and sit helplessly by as companies land in costly and unnecessary lawsuits,” Jordaan states.

This view is echoed by CRS Technologies chief executive officer, James McKerrell, who says the problem with dispute resolution processes often lies with managers who lack the ability to control those processes. “Many of the HR practitioners we meet say they struggle with the process of disputes. This is something that should never be left to chance. Companies must ensure they are totally comfortable with compliance issues if they want to lower their operational risk,” explains McKerrell.

Local compliance requirements become more complicated for multinationals working in South Africa. Jordaan says many foreign companies can find the local regulations around issues such as dismissal particularly frustrating as this is not what they are used to.

“HR managers in multinationals face a serious challenge as they have to implement processes and policies which take into account global standards, while ensuring they remain on the right side of local regulations. This is where solid process management becomes critical. More than that, companies need to opt for the more sensible option of workplace mediation,” he explains.

The Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement (ACDS) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School provides an African hub for academic research on, and the development and teaching of, dispute settlement theory and practice. Jordaan heads up the centre and says South African business leaders need to become more aware of dispute resolution options and processes as a means to resolve internal conflict and try avoid costly litigation.

McKerrell says CRS has, as a rule, always been in favour of alternative dispute resolution and HR consultants at the company are seeing the benefits at clients who make use of this avenue. “Becoming tied up in lengthy litigation processes takes its toll on a company. Not only will companies bear the significant direct costs, but they also suffer indirect burdens on their time and staff morale,” he says.

Both Jordaan and McKerrell believe that while South Africa needs to approach issues like equity and other labour conundrums in a way that genuinely addresses inequalities, companies need to understand that our challenges are not unique. HR managers should be benchmarking themselves against international best practice and finding solutions that don’t always end up in court or the picket line.