The 1973 Strike Lessons
Although the 1976 Soweto student riots are often seen as the tipping point in the struggle against apartheid, it was in fact the 1973 Natal (Durban) strikes which started the chain of events, which eventually led to the collapse of the Nationalist Government.
The strikes began in early January 1973 when 1200 night watchmen went on strike for a R10 a month increase. This quickly spread to the Frame Textile Group in Pinetown where some 7000 employees downed tools. Philip Frame, the entrepreneur who had started the business had a premise that everyone should have a job and that a low wage was preferable to no wage.
The Group had grown as a labour intensive business, paying low wages. At the time of the strike there had been a virtual freeze on wage increases and low entry employees were earning a paltry R7.00 per week. This proved to be the tinder for the fire that quickly spread throughout Natal, with virtually all big businesses experiencing strike action.
The strikes interestingly gained the support of the local public because the workers had real grievances and their actions were, for the mostpart non-violent. One international company, who avoided a strike, did so by consulting with their African employees, granting a substantial increase in wages and allowing African employees to go off one afternoon as a ‘token strike’.
Later that year the company granted employees a further increase, so by the end of the year, their entry level wage was R28.00 per week. In spite of these huge increases, the company experienced record profits that year! They learned the lesson that workers have needs like anyone else. Enlightened employers keep open lines of communication and they do not wait for workers to strike before they take action.
The 1973 strikes enjoyed widespread media exposure both at home and internationally. The British Broadcasting Company made a television programme on the working conditions of Black workers in South Africa employed by British companies. This caused an uproar in Britain, resulting in the British Parliament appointing a Wage Commission to look into the wages and conditions of employment of Black workers employed by British companies in South Africa.
Shortly thereafter, the United States Government appointed a Commission headed by Senator Ed Sullivan (the Sullivan Commission) to investigate the conditions of employment of Black workers employed by American companies.
These commissions both subsequently produced codes of employment practices, which had a profound impact on labour relations in South Africa. British and American companies were required to introduce fair employment practices, which included the training and development and promotion of Black employees into skilled and management positions. They also required these companies to recognise trade unions for Black employees.
Trade unions for Black employees, which had gone underground during the early apartheid years started to emerge after the 1973 strikes. It was therefore not surprising that one of the founder unions of Fosatu (the forerunner of Coastu) was the National Union of Textile Workers.
Bruniquel & Associates (B&A) founded in 1981 and leaders in labour relations training has over the years assisted employers to adjust to the changing labour legislation and environment through its pro-active approach.
Industrial Relations courses offered by B&A, arguably the best of their kind, are designed to defuse tension and empower people in the workplace. B&A also offers a full HR/IR consulting service to ensure that performance barriers are addressed and training is supported by proper systems, policies and procedures.
Click here for a complete list of B&A’s Seta accredited industrial relations and leadership courses and it’s consulting service.
What do you do when an employee refuses an instruction?
“The Employee shall notwithstanding the above job title, be obliged to carry out any lawful instruction given to him / her by the Employer even though this may not be related to his / her position.”
In other words, as long as the instruction is lawful, the employee is contractually bound to carry it out. Failure to do so constitutes insubordination and can result in summary dismissal (i.e. dismissal without notice or notice pay).
It might look straightforward but unfortunately these situations often go awry for employers, especially when managers become angry.
Calling the boss an idiot found not to be grounds for dismissal
The GM had refused to carry out the instruction, calling his boss ‘an idiot’ in a heated discussion. This ultimately led to the GM being dismissed for insubordination and him referring his case to the Industrial Court. The Court found the dismissal to have been unfair and awarded compensation. In its judgement, the Court inferred that the MD’s conduct had indeed been idiotic because the he had expected the GM to carry out an unlawful instruction.
Similarly, a manager may not expect an employee to carry out a task which would expose him or her to danger not normally connected with the performance of his / her duties or which could result in the employee facing disciplinary or criminal charges.
The difference between insubordination and insolence
‘It’s not my job’ is no excuse but look for the underlying cause
Employee’s point of view
From the employer’s or manager’s point of view, these are really ‘no-win’ situations so they need to be handled carefully.
GUIDELINES FOR HANDLING A REFUSAL TO CARRY OUT AN INSTRUCTION:
If a process like this is followed and the instruction is lawful and reasonable, the employee will have only himself to blame for his dismissal. In the event of the employee contesting the dismissal, it can be easily justified by the employer.