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South African banks prepare for biggest strike in 99 years

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South African banks are urging clients to use digital channels as the industry prepares for what could be its biggest strike since 1920.

“Banks will be operating as usual on the day,” the Banking Association South Africa said in an emailed statement on Monday. Lenders “are taking the necessary precautions to minimize disruption” related to the proposed protest action on Friday by the South African Society of Bank Officials and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, it said.

The planned demonstrations will mainly target lenders that have consulted staff over job cuts in recent months. Some South African banks, such as Standard Bank Group Ltd. and Absa Group Ltd., have reduced branch networks and reorganized other units as they digitize their operations.

The companies are also seeking ways to lower costs as they contend with slow economic growth. Cosatu, the nation’s largest-labor union federation, has about 1.8 million members, while Sasbo has 73,000.

Business Unity South Africa, a separate lobby group, is seeking to stop the Cosatu protest, as the notice filed by the federation to support its affiliate may not have satisfied the requirements for the action to be legally protected, the banking association said.

The matter is scheduled to be heard in court on Wednesday. Cosatu will oppose the application, the federation’s national spokesman Sizwe Pamla said by phone.

“We’re not really perturbed by that,” he said.

“For them to think they are going to use the courts of law to try coerce workers into submission, they are just postponing the pain. We’re going to have the strike.”

Cosatu has not yet informed the finance industry of plans for workers to down tools. Instead, it will give lenders 48 hours notice as required by law, Pamla said. “We want to maximize the impact of the strike. We want as much inconvenience for the sector as possible.”

The strike’s organizers were meeting on Monday to finalize its proceedings.

South Africa’s six largest banks had 152,441 employees in 2018, compared with 148,500 in 2015, the banking association said, adding that strong growth in smaller institutions and financial-technology companies means the industry is still expanding.

Lenders have been negotiating with workers and are trying to reduce job cuts through natural attrition or redeploying and reskilling existing staff, with a “few hundred employees” at risk, it said.

“Basa and its members recognize the rights of bank workers to engage in protest action,” the association said.

“Protest action will not help to address the realities affecting the banking industry and will further burden the economy and deter investment.”


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