Experts agree that labour relations is one of the most critical cornerstones of a healthy business, a healthy economy and a healthy socio-economy. However, labour relations is a layered field that cuts across a wealth of disciplines and that integrates a vast number of different factors that form part of a complex, constantly shapeshifting matrix. In this article, we look at some of these seemingly non-labour-related influences, that South African employers and labour relations practitioners must constantly remain aware of, as they inevitably and eventually have an effect on labour relations.
The primary societal systems
At the heart of labour relations, lies the three primary systems that exist in every society, namely: the socio-welfare system, the economic system and the political system. All other environmental factors essentially have an impact on these three systems. Labour relations is not only affected by these three systems, but it also has an effect on it.
- Socio-welfare system
South Africa is a developing country with a high population but relatively slow economic growth, which means that we also have high unemployment rates and a lack of properly educated workers in our economic system. This is combined with dramatic inequalities at various levels of our society. In reality, this means that there are a vast number of people whose basic human needs such as housing, healthcare, sanitation and electricity are not yet fulfilled, while others live in the lap of luxury. As a result, employers are expected to help correct these inequalities and contribute to the upliftment and empowerment of the disadvantaged to participate in economic opportunities. Following the recent COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, there is an even greater expectation on employers to help solve the problems of our society.
- Economic system
The economy and the way our government manages this economy, has a direct impact on labour relations. For example, if our economic growth rate is too slow, it will lead to unemployment due to decreased job opportunities and when the inflation rate increases, it will typically have an effect on wage negotiations. As such, there are a league of macro-economic variables that have an influence on labour relations, including government economic policy, trade balances, consumer price index (CPI), cost of importing and exporting goods, trade union policies and the likes. The current global economic recession, brought on by COVID-19 and the war between Ukraine and Russia, has led to unprecedented business closures and job losses, which generally leaves all labour relations in a constantly fragile and volatile state.
- Political system
Quite simply put, in modern societies, employers will typically support a capitalist system, while employees will support a socialist system. In South Africa, where we have a democracy, there should ideally be a balance between these two, which should be upheld by government and enforced by legislation. Realistically, this kind of balance can realistically only be achieved when all parties to the labour relationship have a vote in the political system, which was not always the case in our country. Nevertheless, any changes in the government of the day, can lead to changes in legislation, which can in turn have a substantial effect on labour relations.
Industrial relations or labour relations are a direct result of historical developments. One of the most notable historical developments of the current era in South Africa, has been the end of the racial discriminatory Apartheid regime in 1994. Not only has this marked a significant turning point in our recent history, but it also called for the development of new policies and procedures to ensure fair, equal workplace opportunities for all. Even though we have made significant strides towards this, the scars that inequality has left on our society cannot be denied and a substantial number of issues that currently affect labour relations originate from that. Implementing measures to help meet the national Employment equity (EE) and broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) transformation goals are just some of these factors that employers still have to manage. Three decades since Apartheid this is starting to change though, as the “business club” Sakeliga recently successful challenged B-BBEE in the Constitutional Court. In practise, this means that businesses who wish to tender for government business will no longer have to meet the B-BBEE criteria, the effect of which is expected to gradually spill over to workforces and labour relations as well.
All people and businesses rely on natural elements for their very existence, and as such natural occurrences have an impact on labour relations as well. Some of the most significant natural phenomena that affect the business environment include disasters such as floods, droughts and fires, the current climate change which is impacted by greenhouse gases, and widespread diseases such as HIV/AIDS and the Monkeypox virus. Most recently, we’ve also had to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic which fundamentally changed the way we had to do business and manage our labour relations.
Technology is an enabler of people that aims to constantly provide easier, simpler and better ways for people to live, work and play. It is also a critical tool to continuously improve the efficiency and productivity in business. Over the years, technological advancements have caused major shifts in the ways that businesses operate. Whilst automation of certain processes has at times led to reductions in personnel, the latest business trends call for rather using technology as a supplementary tool to optimise human resources. Either way, changes in technology have a direct impact on labour relations. The accelerated digitisation of businesses as a direct result of COVID-19, which in turn necessitated hybrid or remote working models, is an example of exactly that.
Businesses are run by people, and people need to be happy, healthy, safe and motivated to function properly at work. There are a league of processes, procedures and policies that can be implemented to manage the health and safety of people in the workplace, and there are numerous regulations and laws that provide for that. Supporting the happiness and motivation of people however, is substantially more complex. This is because people are driven by their belief systems, values and cultures, and they are influenced by their families, friends and colleagues, as well as a league of other external factors and variables. Currently we find ourselves in the aftermath of a global pandemic, a war and economic recession, all of which has led to stress levels of epidemic proportions, which for example places a new expectation on employers to manage these psychosocial hazards.
Just like every other country, business in South Africa is massively impacted by happenings in the rest of the world. Globalisation, the rapid uptake of technology and digitalisation, the international general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT), increased competition and economic power shifts are just a few of the global elements that have a notable effect on our labour relations and how we need to manage it. Most recently, the interdependence of countries, and the effect of the world economy on each and every single one of us has been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, national lockdowns, travel restrictions between countries and the temporary termination of imports and exports have all had a crippling effect on our local economy, and on our businesses.
Managing complexities in an increasingly complex space
The South African United Employers Organisation (SA)UEO has a dedicated research and development team to help ensure that labour relations practitioners who are registered with the organisation remain abreast of any new developments that may have an impact on businesses and the way they have to manage their labour relations. Due to the multi-layered aspects of the profession, the organisation has also spearheaded the founding of a new, South-African first voluntary professional body, namely the Labour Law Labour Relation Association (LLLRA), which amongst other aims to contribute to the ongoing upliftment and continuous professional development (CPD) of labour relations practitioners in South Africa. Labour relations practitioners who are registered with (SA)UEO, had the opportunity to become the first members of this pioneering new association. For more information, contact email@example.com.