10 May 2019

South Africa: Transport Is Not an Essential Service, Committee Finds

The Essential Services Committee (ESC) has denied an application by the National Black Consumer Council to declare public transport an essential service.

The ESC, established under the Labour Relations Act of 1995, investigates whether or not a service should be made an essential service, which the Labour Act defines as one which if interrupted "endangers the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population". Workers who are employed in essential services, like police officers, are not allowed to go on strike.

The application was brought to the committee on 20 April 2018 in light of a month-long national bus strike. It was supported by Golden Arrow Bus Services, Commuter Bus Employers Organisation and the South African Bus Employers Association, among others.

The ruling was made in February, but some of the parties involved, such as the unions, were only notified in April.

Read the ruling here.

According to the NBCC, about 17,000 bus drivers participated in the strike. Some of the drivers' demands were a 12% increase across the board, R8,000 minimum wage, a change in night shift hours and full pay for dual drivers on long distance trips.

Chairperson of the ESC, Luvoyo Bono, said in his ruling that the NBCC had not convinced him that a bus strike would endanger life, personal safety or health. He said it was undisputed evidence that there was always alternative transport like taxis and trains. Although the increased number of commuters using taxis and trains would have an effect on some commuters, Bono said it would not translate to endangerment to life, personal safety or health of a whole or part of the population. "The commuters will face the same dangers and risks using these services at any time," he said. It is not particular "to strike periods only".

The NBCC said in its submissions that the strike affected many commuters who were left stranded. This affected people in other sectors like hospitals, schools, fire and emergency services and water services, it argued. "[Commuters] were also hurt financially by having to pay higher travelling costs to get to work using alternative means of transport [like] taxis. This also impacted on work attendance as many workers were either absent or arrived late for work," said the NBCC.

It said the biggest impact was felt in the healthcare sector where several hospitals reported increased absenteeism and short staffing during the strike. Many nurses depended on public transport to travel to work. "The strike affected the right to affordable health and the right to health is directly linked to the right of life," said the NBCC.

But National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) and Tirisano Transport and Services Workers Union (TASWU) opposed NBCC's application. The unions argued that making public transport an essential service infringed on the right of workers to go on strike.

"The workers only resort to strike action as a last resort. There were twenty days of negotiation preceding the last bus strike in 2018. However, a majority of their demands were not achieved," NUMSA said in its submissions. NUMSA argued that strikes are intended to be an interruption to labour so that the affected employers will agree to the workers' demands.

SATAWU agreed with NUMSA, saying workers achieve their demands by striking, "as it is not simply handed to them on a silver platter. ... Blame cannot be apportioned to workers simply because they are seeking to transform their economic situation."

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