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Labour Law in a Nutshell February 2019

STRIKE FOR STRESS: Why are workers still willing to go on strike when the odds of scoring real financial gains are stacked against them?  

The annual wage negotiations and “strike season” will unfold again in the next few weeks.

It’s generally understood that the main reasons workers go on strike are to secure better wages and improved working conditions. This is a risky business for all concerned. Employees sacrifice their pay during the strike to there’s no certainty for how long or whether the employer will blink and concede.  

Workers also know from past experience that employers don’t often concede increases much more than the current inflation rate. So the potential reward for taking the high risk of strike action is probably a marginal 1 – 3% increase in addition to the employer’s last offer.

Studies have shown that employees won’t recover their lost wages for at least another three years if a strike lasts for more than a week. And if it lasts longer, they’ll probably never make up the losses.  

So why do workers still take the risks of strike action when there’s a real possibility they could be financially worse off after the strike?

A big part of the answer could be to release pent up stress.

A workplace study in the UK dubbed the “Whitehall” study monitored 28 000 British civil servants over 40 years. It confirmed the intuitive perception that workplace stress is a reliable predicator of increased risk of mortality from a wide range of stress related diseases.

A second study was done to identify why this was the case. It found that –

“…the lower ranking employees had less social support, less variety at work and, most importantly, an overwhelming sense of lack of control when compared with those in more senior positions.”

And

“…it is the combination of high demands and a lack of control that appears to be one of the greatest drivers in stress and its wide range of negative health associations.”

Key factors in the workplace include –

  • Lack of fairness or injustice
  • Social isolation
  • An effort-reward imbalance
  • A lack of authority over day-to-day decisions.

These findings probably also apply to South African workplaces. In fact, the causes and levels of stress are probably much more profound here given our history of social injustice and high levels of inequality. The consequence could be than the pressures on lower-ranking workers in our workplaces are far greater and more complex that is generally understood. Inter-union rivalry for membership in workplaces adds significantly greater levels of stress into the mix.   

A strike is by definition a show of strength. Its purpose is to challenge the status quo. The key factors for the stress identified in the UK studies could indicate that the primary trigger for strikes in our workplaces is not only financial. It’s also an opportunity for workers to give vent to their pent-up stress and to take more control of their circumstances. The need to experience control by striking – no matter how temporary – could be a powerful reason for strikes in our workplaces.

TIP: Employers could benefit from applying work practices that give lower-rank workers more control over their day-to-day tasks and lives at work.  Other initiatives could include rewarding positive behaviours, allowing more participation in decision-making, promoting a sense of fairness and justice and championing fair treatment of others.

Patrick Deale
labour lawyer & mediator
DEALE ATTORNEYS
Offices in Johannesburg & KZN

Cell: 083 375 8771
Email: patrick@deale.co.za
Web: www.deale.co.za
Skype: patrick.deale

Source: Article by Richard Sutton in Airklink Skyways magazine February 2019.