This is how we strike

But parts of labour department’s latest report don’t make sense

The department of labour this week pleaded for an acceptance of “traditional bargaining structures” and for employers “to get more into the minds of employees”.

The department’s annual Industrial Action Report reads: “Government needs to take control of the situation and solidify practice and protocol with regard to wage negotiations before the nation’s mining sector becomes uninvestable.”

The report attempts to quantify the amount of strike action taking place and ranks last year as the most extensive strike year since 2006 – at least as far as the private sector is concerned. The all-time record stems from 2010’s massive public sector strike.

But the unprecedented strikes in the mining sector seriously distort the picture in the private sector.

If the mines are left out of the equation, the rest of the economy had a remarkably peaceful 2012.

The non-mining private economy enjoyed its second most peaceful year in a decade with less than 500 000 strike days versus 2.2 million in 2011 and well over 800 000 in both 2010 and 2009.

But the scale of the mining strikes are starkly illustrated.

Mine workers clocked 2.7 million strike days – several times the strike downtime suffered by the sector in any other year in the past decade.

Comparisons to the monumental mine workers’ strike of 1987, from which the National Union of Mineworkers was launched into its central role in the sector, are inevitable.

That year, South Africa clocked an estimated 9 million strike days – a record only beaten by the 2007 and 2010 public sector strikes and almost three times the total of last year.

Considering the fact that the nation’s workforce has grown significantly since 1987, that year is probably still the worst on record, in relative terms.

The report relies on two-page forms filled in by employers and sent to the department of labour after strikes. It’s voluntary, but the department does monitor the media and follows up with employers who do not report strikes.

“The figures in this report are inclusive of all industrial action that comes to the knowledge of the department, and the methods used to secure information practically preclude probability of omissions of a serious nature,” reads the document.

For some reason, the parallel estimates produced by the private consultancy, Andrew Levy Employment, tend to differ from the department’s estimates.

In 2011, the consultancy counted more than double the days reported by the department. But in the record-breaking strike season of 2010 they came up with a lower estimate.

According to Jackie Kelly, the research analyst at Andrew Levy, all these estimates are sketchy.

“As far as strike statistics are concerned, no one knows the actual number and both ourselves and the department of labour could be at least 40% out,” she told City Press in an emailed response to questions.

“The key is to have consistency over time in data handling. We do not profess to be accurate down to the last decimal point. What we want to know is whether the trend is up or down. This, of course, is true of all labour market data.”

Parts of the department’s report also don’t make much sense. Employers are asked to identify the unions involved, but not the membership of the different unions. This leads to the obviously wrong reportage that last year, members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union only clocked 4 500 strike days.

Very contradictory results sometimes appear. In last year’s report, mines and quarries apparently suffered 370 473 lost days – and 28 428 115 lost hours, which is physically impossible.

The fact that mine workers were working on average 77 hours a day might explain the strike action.

The same inconsistency in last year’s report shows that coal miners worked on average more than 400 hours a day.

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