SOUTH African workers could see their right to strike “significantly” extended if a Bill before the parliament is passed.

The new Labour Relations Bill, which is set to replace present legislation, is expected to come into force in the middle of next year, cutting the number of employees banned from striking and opening the door to additional industrial action.

The workforce is governed by two sets of laws, one for the private sector and one for public sector staff. The new Act would cover both sets of workers and provide uniformity on the definition of essential services prohibited from striking.

The draft Bill, agreed by parliament, defines essential services in the same way as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as those which, if interrupted, would “endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”. The Bill says the task of interpreting the definition would be given to an Essential Services Committee consisting of people with knowledge and experience of labour law and industrial relations.

The University of South Africa's Professor Peter le Roux, speaking at the the International Bar Association Paris conference, said if the ILO approach was adopted the definition of essential services would be “narrowly construed”.

“Far fewer employees will be regarded as being employed in essential services than is currently the case and the right to strike will be extended significantly,” he said.

The Bill also does away with criminal sanctions to enforce compliance with its provisions, but allows employers to apply for injunctions to prevent strikes and claim for damages and compensation.