History of South African Labour Law
The Native Labour Regulations Act 1911 prohibited strikes by trade unions, introduced wage ceilings and a pass system for moving around jobs. Over 70,000 Chinese labourers were brought in, and used by landowners to undercut the wages of other workers. Among white workers, there was significant unrest, and major strikes took place in 1907, 1913, 1914 and 1922
For a period of sixteen years, from 1979 to 1995, several critical developments occurred in the field of labour law in South Africa, beginning with a radical change in the first of these years, when a significant Commission of Enquiry was held, resulting in the establishment of an Industrial Court, which was given extensive powers to mould, change, shape and develop the law. Prior to 1995, most labour relations were based on contracts. In 1995, much of the law developed by the Commission and the Industrial Court was put together in the Labour Relations Act 1995 (LRA). Since then, most labour law has been based on statute.
Prior to 1995, an employee could be dismissed in terms of the contract of employment, which could permit any reason for dismissal. Since 1995, an employee may be dismissed only for misconduct, operational reasons and incapacity. The Labour Reactions Act 1995 is a pivotal piece of legislation, as it recognises the need for fast and easy access to justice in labour disputes. The Industrial Court had the status of a High Court, and therefore was not accessible to all labourers.
1995 also saw the introduction of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) which is an administrative tribunal. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration endeavours first and foremost to conciliate between the parties. If it is unsuccessful in this, the matter moves on to arbitration. The entire process is very informal, and at no charge, and is therefore very accessible to labourers, who often utilise it: About 300 new cases are brought before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration daily. In addition to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, 1995 saw the introduction of bargaining councils, which allow for communication across the industry. A bargaining council is organised collectively and voluntarily, and must be registered. In order to be registered, an alternative-dispute-resolution mechanism, similar to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, must be put in place.
The Labour Reactions Act 1995 also regulated the issue of fairness, not only in termination but during employment, too. In 1998, however, most of the law on unfair labour practices was removed from the Labour Reactions Act 1995 and put into the Employment Equity Act (EEA). The EEA also deals with issues such as fairness regarding a worker’s human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) status or disability, as well as the issue of affirmative action.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), the Health and Safety Acts and the Skills Development Act, must be read with the EEA. The Skills Development Act provides that a small percentage of a labourer’s salary must be contributed to the Department of Labour, enabling certain workshops to be run which are designed to develop skills.