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Retrenchment: The fight for a better deal

Thousands of workers have lost their jobs in the past few years. And everyday more workers lose their jobs. Bosses say business is bad – and there is nothing they can do.

Just last week, a big factory in Johannesburg told 200 workers to go. The boss said the factory did not have enough work. When workers lose their jobs in this way, we say the workers are retrenched.

The workers were upset. They know they will suffer – and so will their families. And they were angry. They say “bosses cut workers before they cut profits”.

Now trade unions are fighting against retrenchment. They often use the law in their fight. In this story you can read how workers can use the law in the fight against retrenchment.

Sometimes the law is clear. And sometimes the law is not clear. Union leaders say the law is not made for workers. So workers must be very careful when they use the law to fight retrenchment.

The law often can’t stop bosses from retrenching workers. But the law says that bosses must do some things when they retrench workers. This part of the law is clear:

  • Bosses must give workers their notice pay. The notice time is different for different factories. But mostly notice is one week for weekly ‘paid workers and two weeks for monthly paid workers.

  • Bosses must give workers their leave pay.

  • Bosses must give workers their blue card. Workers need the blue card to get money from the U.I.F.

  • Bosses must write the correct number on the blue card. The number for retrenchment is 2. If this number is wrong the workers may have to wait a long time to get their money from U.I.F.

  • Bosses cannot retrench contract workers before the contract is finished. Contract workers come from the rural areas. They sign a contract when they begin work. Most contracts are for one year. If the bosses retrench a contract worker before the end of the contract, then the bosses must pay the worker for the time until the contract ends. But bosses are not happy about this law for contract workers. Maybe the law will change to help bosses. So workers must watch out for changes in the law.


Workers know that the law gives them very few rights. So in the past two years, many trade unions fought against retrenchment in the courts. They went to court and tried to get more rights.

They said their bosses were not fair when they retrenched workers. Sometimes the workers lost. But sometimes they won – and the courts said things that workers can use in the fight against retrenchment.

Last year a factory called Stobar retrenched six workers. The workers from Stobar belong to the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU).

Later Stobar fired 50 workers. Their bosses said the workers were on a ‘go slow’ strike. The workers and their union took Stobar to court. They said the retrench­ment of the six workers was unfair. They also said the firing of the 50 workers was unfair. The workers won the court case.

Workers from a factory called Fodens also won a big court case. The bosses at Fodens retrenched two worker leaders. And they fired one contract worker. The workers belonged to the United African Motor and Allied Workers Union. The workers said the bosses were unfair. So they took the Foden’s bosses to court – and they won.

In these two cases the courts spoke about retrenchment. The courts said the bosses must do many things before they can retrench workers. Workers can use these two court cases to fight retrenchment. The court didn’t give clear rules. But workers can try to demand these things from the bosses;

  • Bosses must prove that they have good reasons for retrenchment.

  • Bosses cannot fire workers only because they belong to a trade union. Bosses must have good reasons for retrenchment. They cannot use retrenchment to fire worker leaders and trade union members.

  • If most of the workers belong to a trade union, then the bosses must talk to the trade union before they retrench workers.

  • Bosses must think of other things before they retrench workers. For example, they can ask workers to work short time (four days a week). Or they can cut down on all overtime. Or they can give workers unpaid leave.

  • Bosses cannot retrench contract workers before their contract is finished.

  • Bosses must tell workers about retrenchment as soon as possible. Workers need time to look for other jobs.

  • Bosses must be fair when they choose workers for retrenchment. They must not choose workers who have worked for many years in the factory. They must retrench new workers first. This is called “last in first out”.

  • If bosses retrench workers then they must try to give the workers “severance” pay. Severance pay is money to help the workers while they are looking for new jobs.

Workers can demand all of these things when they are fighting against retrench­ment. Because the courts said these things, the bosses must talk to the workers. If the bosses do not talk to the workers, then the workers can take them to court ­ and the chances are good that the workers will win.


But workers must be carefuI. Workers cannot always use the law in the fight for their rights.

Court cases cost a lot of money and workers don’t have lots of money. Workers also need a trade union to fight for them. If workers do not belong to a trade union, they will have a hard time fighting retrenchment. Many lawyers say that workers must have a strong organization before they can use the law.

Workers know the problems with the law. They know that these problems will make the fight long and hard. But this will not stop their fight. The fight against retrenchment wiII go on.


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