Dismantling South Africa's existing centralised collective bargaining model without a viable alternative in place would result in "total chaos", as it would not address the root causes of discontent plaguing domestic labour relations, Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa) industrial relations executive Gordon Angus has cautioned.
"Collapsing the current system without coming up with an acceptable, well-thought-out and viable alternative model that addresses the problems of minimum standards, inequality and poverty while also, critically, ensuring the continued survival and growth of the businesses in the sector...will result in total chaos.
"Until this balance is found, our industrial relations climate will remain seriously problematic and continue to erode investor confidence and direct investment in the economy," he said in a statement on Monday.
Angus noted that there was currently legal action brought by certain employers in the metals industry to stop the extension to non-parties of the collective agreement reached between Seifsa and trade unions earlier in the year.
In addition, a broader, separate legal challenge questioned the constitutionality of the provisions in the Labour Relations Act that obliged the Labour Minister to automatically extend agreements reached between majority parties.
"Should these unfortunate legal actions succeed, the industrial relations consequences could be extremely serious, particularly at a time when minimum wages are already a matter of great contention, having resulted in recent strike action that has inflicted serious damage to the country's economy," he said.
Angus argued that, firstly, there was "a real possibility" that labour would undertake further major protests and possible strike action against what it perceived as a serious attack by "essentially capitalist interests" against trade union rights.
"Secondly, they may well call for a complete overhaul of all legislation regarding minimum wages and other conditions of employment in South Africa, which could result in legislation which would be a great deal more onerous to employers than that which currently exists," he said.
In the metals industry, Angus added that the parties to the collective agreement had acknowledged that the viability and sustainability of the collective bargaining structures and processes were under threat from two key socio-economic forces.
These were the enhanced requirement for increased competitiveness in a global market and the urgent need to tackle the social living conditions of employees in an environment worsened by inequality and poor service delivery.
Moreover, acknowledgement needed to be given to the fact that, from an employee's perspective, strike action was no longer just about "bread and butter" issues, but rather a symptom of deeper underlying social problems.
"What eventually results from the discussion about the future of collective bargaining remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the current state of affairs is unsustainable and the time for action is long overdue.
"However, this action needs to be considered and well researched and, most importantly, it requires genuine commitment from all stakeholders, which clearly includes more than just employers and employees," he asserted.
Angus' comments came days after South Africa's largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), was expelled from African National Congress- (ANC-) linked labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
Reuters reported last week that Numsa's divorce from Cosatu had been on the cards since last December when it said it would not support the ANC in a May general election.
Numsa, which claimed 340 000 members in the manufacturing sector, had, meanwhile, outlined plans to form a political movement called the United Front to push its socialist agenda.