In South Africa, one could strongly argue that the Labour Relations Act (LRA) is among the most significant pieces of legislation, given its historical context and the rights it regulates and protects. This argument was bolstered by the recent Labour Court ruling in favour of Simunye Workers Forum (SWF), which challenged the Registrar’s decision to refuse its registration as a trade union.

The origin of SWF traces back to the support it received from the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO). Although the Registrar opined that SWF was ineligible for registration due to a lack of office bearers and insufficient independence, the Labour Court declared that SWF’s relationship with CWAO did not compromise its autonomy. Moreover, the court noted that SWF’s constitution provided for Standing Committee meetings, thus overcoming the lack of office bearers. As a result, the court directed the Registrar to register SWF as a trade union.

This victory for SWF is ground-breaking, as it challenges the conventional understanding of a trade union. While it raises questions about whether this judgment may set a precedent for any “union” or forum to be established, one needs to remember the specific circumstances of the SWF case and the significant compliance with the LRA it demonstrated. The chances of the Registrar, or the Labour Court, registering a trade union that does not meet or substantially comply with the LRA requirements are slim.

From an employer’s perspective, this judgement can have significant implications on centralised bargaining. By potentially increasing worker representation in bargaining councils, employers may encounter more robust negotiations. However, this can lead to more sustainable outcomes, with agreements likely to be better respected and implemented due to the increased representativeness.

The fluidity and ever-changing nature of labour relations call for legislation or case law to keep pace with the evolving needs of both workers and employers. From this viewpoint, the SWF judgement is a progressive move, reflective of our dynamic work environment. It might serve as a catalyst that the union movement needs, bringing more workers’ voices to the table, and addressing the long-standing issue of decreasing labour representation.

While we anticipate potential implications from this judgement, what remains uncertain is the Registrar’s response to the outcome. Will it lead to a reconsideration of the criteria for trade union registration, or will the Registrar stand firm on the existing rules? Only time will reveal the long-term effects of this landmark ruling. The future of labour relations in South Africa will depend on how these judgments are implemented and built upon, and the balance that is struck between the rights of workers and the practical needs of employers.

Article by Daniel van der Merwe | National Collective Bargaining Coordinator