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It’s time to rebuild trust

Written by Lucio Trentini SEIFSA Chief Executive

In my last note I put a challenge to our employer colleagues on the Metals and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) that given that our economy is on its knees – now would be a good time to rise above the rhetoric and play a more constructive role in the affairs of the Council. After all, I said, employers represented by the Employer Organizations on the MEIBC have far more in common than what they think.

If we are going to survive this current crisis, we know that government is pinning its hopes of an economic revival on the private sector. The President is well aware that he cannot solve the country’s problems alone. The state needs the private sector to step up in a big way.

For South Africa, our economy and the metals and engineering industries to dig itself out of the current crisis, business has to take the lead.  Whilst it is up to employers to keep the wheels of industry turning, the job of all role players on the MEIBC is to create a predictable, stable policy environment and for this to succeed requires trust.

Bargaining council

Over the last ten years, trust between employer organizations on the bargaining council has all but been eroded. This has severely hampered the work of the bargaining council, has almost led to its liquidation and created a toxic and dysfunctional operating environment that has made it impossible to even begin addressing the real challenges facing our sector.

The MEIBC, once the benchmark, for all Bargaining Councils, is today a shadow of its former self, lurching from one crisis to the next. Staff are demoralized, many have left and it’s a miracle that they have been able to keep the doors open, given that their existence depends solely on two income streams, the administration and dispute levy, both of which were last reviewed in 2011.

Bargaining Council are created by the parties that sit-on them, to provide a platform to conclude agreements covering terms and conditions of employment, including social security benefit fund agreements. More importantly, the platform created by a bargaining council, in bringing organized business and labour around a single table, in an atmosphere of collaboration and joint problem solving ideally should be aimed at highlighting, debating and addressing the many obstacles standing in the way of meaningful interventions in moving the needle forward on job retention, creation and economic prosperity.

This sadly, has not been the case on our Bargaining Council for many years. It serves no purpose to allocate who is mainly, partly or not at all to blame for this sorry state of affairs. As participants and I refer specifically to the employer representatives on the Council, are all culpable, in varying degrees.

The point here is that trust needs to be rebuilt, not so much as between the trade unions themselves or in the engagement process between trade unions and employers but instead amongst the different employer groupings on the Council.

This is where the relationship, dynamic and mind-set to move forward has completely broken down. It’s a tragedy that more often than not unions on the MEIBC are able to find a single unified voice as opposed to the differing and bickering voices that make up the employer bloc.

Trust is built over time and requires a level of transparency that has not been forthcoming from within the employer bloc. Rebuilding trust is difficult, but is vital if the MEIBC is to play a pivotal role in facilitating meaningful and constructive dialogue between all social partners.

The stakes are higher than they have ever been. Our economy is under siege as it battles a job, growth and hunger crisis. A devastating 63.9% of South Africans under the age of 24 are unemployed, consumer inflation is at a 13 year high and one in four people live below the food poverty line.

Employer representatives, duly elected by their respective constituencies, simply cannot afford to play fast and loose with the trust members have invested. It’s high time employer representatives elected to serve on the Council bury the hatchet and take a step forward and ask: how can we make a meaningful contribution to the crisis facing our sector, how can we pull together and build the MEIBC that we are supposed to serve and finally, how can we move beyond our narrow and fixed paradigms.

I believe we have no choice; we can continue to quibble, disagree and look to score points off one another or we can wipe the slate clean and start afresh. The choice is quite simple, change the paradigm or continue on the path to eventual insignificance. Who is prepared to lay down their arms (figuratively speaking) and take a seat at the table with a view on focusing on what unites us as opposed to what keeps us apart?

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