Trade Unions of South Africa are the strongest and well disciplined among countries in the African continent. South Africa has more than one hundred registered trade unions now, with three major federations of trade unions.

In South Africa trade unions were stared towards the dusk of 19th century but the early trade unions were formed for racially white workers. Thanks to continuous struggle for rights of black workers which was also part of the anti apartheid movement, union registration and membership rights were established for blacks. During the turbulent years of anti apartheid agitations trade unions played a vital role in South Africa. Now the trade unions of South Africa are politically active. Altogether South Africa’s Trade unions has an active membership of 3.2 million with over 26 per cent of formal work force being members in one of the trade unions.


Trade Union Federations of South Africa

1. Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU)

The Congress of South African Trade Unions is a central trade union federation in South Africa. It has about 21 functioning affiliated unions and an estimated membership of 1.8 million which also has the distinction of the largest trade union confederations in South Africa. COSTU was established in 1985 with 33 trade unions forming together with Elijah Barayi and Jay Naidoo as top office bearers. The establishing aim of COSTU were to strengthen the workforce in all industries, to fight exploitation of women workers, to demand withdrawal of state emergency, release of political prisoners, fight apartheid, for right to strike and picket, to regulate national minimum wage and to living wages.

2. Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA)

Federation of Unions of South Africa is the second largest national trade union federation in South Africa. Established in 1997, FEDUSA has a membership of 560 thousand and it represents workers in automobile industry, aviation, education, medical services, banking, aviation, healthcare and hotel industry.

3. National Council of Trade Unions

The National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) of South Africa is a federation of 17 affiliated unions with nearly four hundred thousand strong membership support. The affiliated trade unions of NACTU is functional among workers in mining. construction, banking, insurance, hospitality, education, government, public sector and civic administration, electrical, textiles, agriculture, furniture, food processing, chemical, teachers, transport, etc.

Roles and Responsibilities of Trade Unions in South Africa

The core purpose of trade unions in South Africa, as it is elsewhere in the world is to regulate relations between employers and their employers. This role of trade unions is defined throughout the labour related legislative framework of SA.

1. Job Regulation:

Basic Conditions of Employment Act 1995 is aimed at protecting and enhancing workers’ right for employment. BCEA authorizes trade unions to protect its members against management prerogatives to take decision liberally on employing and discharging the workers. It places a joint mechanism by management on one hand and trade union on the other hand to determine on issues and conditions of employment at workplace. The purpose of trade union here is to advance economic development and social justice by fulfilling primary object of the Act. Section 4 of the BCEA provides mechanism for collective bargaining, section 49(1) regulates collective agreement concluded in the bargaining council.

2. Job Security

The Labour Regulation Act-(No.66) 1995 gives authority to trade unions represent its members against unfair dismissals, retrenchments and unilateral actions by employers in changing the terms and conditions of employment. Through trade union activity the workers get collective might to resist unilateral action by management in deciding such matters.

3. Employment Equity

Employment Equity Act (Act 55) 1998 Employment equity is an important part of the drive towards socio economic transformation. The act prohibits unfair discrimination in employment policy or practice on “one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, birth or any other arbitrary ground.” Though the Act does not provide mechanism to resolve dispute regarding unfairness of dismissals, the trade unions are empowered by statute to represent affected workers through mechanisms provided in various labour laws.

Health And Safety

Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) (Act 85) of 1993 in general places some responsibility on employers to take reasonable care for the safety and health of employees. Apart from that, where there is a negotiated agreement between employers and trade unions concerning special provisions of health and safety, it supplements the OHSA Act. Further, such agreements require employers allow trade union office bearers to form part of investigations in to industrial accidents and occupational hazards. OHSA establishes an Advisory Council for Occupational Health and Safety to advice the Minister of Labour.

Skill Development

Trade Unions ensure the development of workers by overseeing compliance of various legislations aimed to promote the moral, physical and intellectual development. Skill Development Act 1997 (Act 97) establishes the Skills Authority, which consists of, among others, five voting members nominated by NEDLAC and appointed by the Minister of Labour to represent organized labour. The Act also establishes the Sectoral Education and Training Authorities which consists of members of workers unions, employers associations and government departments.