Is it a forum or a union? Simunye Workers Forum waits for labour court decision

Members of Simunye Workers Forum outside the Labour Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday. Photo by Ramatamo Sehoai

The forum argues that it does not want to follow the traditional model of current union structures while the registrar insists that it must for it to be a registered union.

Members of Simunye Workers Forum (SWF) will have to wait for three months to find out if they will be a recognised – with all organisational rights – trade union. The forum made its presentation at the judgement, which was reserved by the Labour Court in Braamfontein on Wednesday (14 June). Formed in 2016 through Casual Workers Advisory Office (CWAO), the forum has over 1,000 subscribed members spread all over Gauteng. For some time, it has been battling with the labour department to be registered so that it can represent their members properly in bargaining forums.

Through their legal representative, the department said the forum could not be registered due to non-compliance with section 95 of the Labour Relations Act. According to the registrar of labour relations, their refusal is based on the fact that the forum is not independent from CWAO. With the evidence at their disposal, the department states that Simunye depends on CWAO for its administration and structural needs. The registrar also says that the union must have a properly drafted constitution, election of office bearers, and organisational functions like record keeping and proper bookkeeping.

Also Simunye’s constitution, they argue, does not make provision for members to appeal when experiencing disputes with the organisation. Failure to comply with these requirements would be a recipe for disaster, said the department’s lawyer. He says all unions are the same and must be governed by one act and the registrar cannot have discretion or a special provision for certain unions. The number of members the union should have was not a factor in the arguments.

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Ighsaan Schroeder says the registrar of labour relations should approach the matter in its context and help workers to form their own union.

A new way of labour organising

Defending their position, CWAO’s co-ordinator, Ighsaan Schroeder says those are not entirely the requirements. Organisations have in the past, he argues, collaborated on different projects to achieve common objectives, so the relationship between the advice office and Simunye is not a new thing. Fundamentally, he says, Simunye doesn’t wish to follow the traditional model of union structures. Their members are also labour broker workers who are in and out of jobs from time to time, so things cannot be the same.

What the register should do is to approach the matter in its context and help workers to eventually form their own union as this is their constitutional rights. “We’ve done everything required as per the guidelines. I think they clearly don’t conceive that a worker organisation can be different. There are reasons why we want to do things differently in a certain way,” Schroeder says.

“The reason why we want Simunye to be different is that a lot of workers have had bad experiences with traditional unions where too much power is given to office bearers. When they have too many powers, they end up selling out members through various investment arms and colluding with the employers. Unions now have different priorities. They are now financial institutions. They no longer represent workers on the shop floor,” says Sydney Moshoaliba, education officer of CWAO.

“Most importantly, why we want the union, we want to be properly represented at the CCMA as most of us who are casual and temporary workers experience serious challenges of exploitation at our workplaces,” says Nelisiwe Mahlangu, a SWF activist.

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SWF has already been functioning as a union for some time. It succeeded in getting more than 12,500 labour broker workers at companies large and small (including Dischem, Barlow Rand, Kelloggs, Takealot, Simba and Heineken) to be made permanent employees. But in other workplaces, they say, the bosses have simply refused to negotiate with SWF on the grounds that it is not a registered trade union.

The judgement is expected in about three months and will be delivered by email. “If the judgement doesn’t come our way, we will appeal and eventually take the matter to the constitutional court,” concludes Schroeder.

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