Collective Bargaining, where conditions of employment are determined, disputes are resolved and, generally relations between employers and employees are regulated, is firmly established in South African Labour relations. However, collective bargaining, which is adversarial by nature, has its limitations and rarely promotes the development of more co-operative relationships between employers on the one hand and employees and their unions on the other.
The drafters of the Labour Relations Act, realising these shortcomings, accepted the need for another way in which employers and employees could interact in co-operative joint consensus seeking consultation in the form of creating workplace forums.
Workplace forums are committees of employees elected by employees for employees in a workplace. They meet employers on a regular basis for consultation on workplace issues. These bodies are established to promote the interests of all employees in the workplace, not only of trade union members.
Workplace forums can never replace collective bargaining and have been designed to create a consensus-seeking platform for employers and employees to effectively consult on workplace issues such as non-wage related issues, restructuring, etc.
Functions of the workplace forum
Section 79 of the LRA, by setting out the four “general functions” of provides a broad overview of what workplace forums purports to achieve:
• To seek to promote the interests of all employees in the workplace whether or not they are trade
- To seek to enhance efficiency in the workplace;
- To be consulted by the employer, with a view to reaching consensus, about the matters referred
to in section 84; and
- To participate in joint decision-making about the matters referred to in s86.
In terms of section 80(1), a workplace forum can only be established if the employer has more than 100 employees. A Workplace forum differs from a trade union in that the latter is accepted to be a juristic person. In addition, a trade union can embark on strikes and industrial actions, where a workplace forum cannot. Workplace forums can only be established by a representative trade union, or jointly with any other union, provided that these unions represent the majority of workers.
Section 84(1) states that workplace forums have the right to be consulted regarding the following issues:
- Restructuring due to the introduction of technology
- Partial or total plant closures
- Mergers and transfers
- Job Grading
- Skills and training
Establishing an effective workplace forum and reaping the benefits
For a workplace forum to function effectively, it is highly recommended that those elected are provided training to ensure that they are aware of their role and responsibilities. This training should be in line with the constitution of the forum.
Where a workplace forum functions at its full capacity, workplace grievances and concerns of employees are addressed, and management becomes more attuned to what the needs of their workers are.
For a workplace forum to be effective, employers need to remember that members thereof need to be elected by their employees. If management “hand-picked” and selected a few to serve the employer’s needs, this will defeat the purpose of democracy in the workplace and this will hamper the successful functioning of the platform.
How workplace forums are dissolved
The majority workplace union may request a ballot to dissolve the forum. An election officer should be appointed in terms of the forum’s constitution to oversee the process. The aforementioned official should conduct such ballot within 30 days after receiving the request. If more than 50 percent of those who have voted have done so in support of the proposed dissolution, the forum must be dissolved.
In the search of alternative enhancements to collective bargaining in South Africa, it should be considered that workplace forums may be a cost-effective means to resolve disputes before ending up at the CCMA. If a forum functions to its full potential its benefits surely outweigh its disadvantages. Workplace forums are a concept that should be welcomed by employers.
Article by: Janeske Greeff
Dispute Resolution Official – Cape Town