What you need to know about negotiating better conditions at work


What you need to know about negotiating better conditions at work

The ability to negotiate better conditions for workers doesn’t happen accidentally. Good worker leaders consistently work at it. They listen, study and learn to be able to negotiate better conditions at work, no matter where the workplace is located, no matter what the status of workers, and no matter how unorganised workers are.

What are conditions at work?

Conditions at work: The rules and conditions of service that apply to workers in policy and also in practice. Some rules and conditions might be unwritten or even unspoken, even though they are accepted and enforced.

There are several main types of conditions at work. For each condition at work, a negotiator must know the minimum standards in place and the associated value and principle.

Conditions at work always have a principle of wellbeing, fairness or a social value that underpins them. This principle forms the foundation of arguments in negotiations. For example, a negotiation about allowances is not just about pay. It is about recognising that some workplaces and some types of work put special demands on workers, and that special allowances should be made for these special demands. Similarly, a negotiation about hours of work is not just about pay. It is also about limiting extraordinary hours and compensating workers for anti-social hours of work. Those who work nights and weekends lose opportunities to participate in important family, community and cultural events.

5 examples of the main types of conditions at work

Here we focus on five examples of the main types of conditions at work. We also provide examples of clauses in labour law and other benchmarks that deal with these types of conditions at work.

1. Allowances

The principle: Recognise that certain workplaces and types of work make special demands on workers and that special allowances should be made for this.

Examples of allowances: Shift, tool, danger, travel, living out, subsistence, standby, acting and transport.

Legislated minimums and other  benchmarks


Night work

An employer may only require or permit an employee to perform night work, if so agreed, and if:
(a) The employee is compensated by the payment of an allowance, which may be a shift allowance, or by a reduction of working hours.
(b) Transportation is available between the employee’s place of residence and the workplace at the commencement and conclusion of the employee’s shift. (Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Section 17(2)).

More benchmarks

The Actual Wage Rates Database (AWARD) is maintained by the Labour Research Service. AWARD contains minimum wages and conditions of work in collective agreements in South Africa.
  • Shift allowance: 30% of basic wage (AWARD average rate).
  • Acting allowance: 15% of basic wage (AWARD average rate).
  • Night Shift allowance: 13% of basic wage (AWARD average rate).

2. Pay

Principle: Compensation for labour and time.

Examples: Wages, annual increases, allowances, overtime, regular and reliable monthly wages.

Choose an approach to wage increases

a) Across-the-board percentage (%) increases.

b) Staggered percentage (%) increases – higher % for low earners and lower % for high earners.

c) Percentage increase or a money amount, whichever is greater for the worker as an amount of money

Legislated minimums and other  benchmarks

Minimum guaranteed hours

  • Daily wage payment. An employee or a worker, as defined in Section 1 of the National Minimum Wage Act of 2018, who works for less than 4 hours on any day, must be paid for 4 hours of work on that day. (Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Section 9A)
  • Guaranteed minimum hours of work: An employer shall not employ any employee to work for less than 6 hours per day. If an employee works for less than 6 hours, then that employee shall be paid for 6 hours. (Bargaining Council for the Contract Cleaning Industry, Main agreement, 2020).

More Benchmarks

Payment in kind

  • An employer shall not, as a condition of employment, require an employee to accept accommodation, meals or rations from the employer or from any person or at any place nominated by the employer. An employer shall not, as a condition of employment, require an employee to receive any in kind form of payment in lieu of salaries or as part thereof. (Bargaining Council for the Private Security Sector, 2020).

3. Hours of work


  • To provide enough guaranteed hours of work for decent pay.
  • To provide a regular schedule of hours of work to allow workers to plan for the fulfilment of family responsibilities and the opportunity to participate in established social and cultural events.
  • To limit hours of work so that workers may rest, rejuvenate and stay safe.
  • Compensating workers for anti-social hours of work (late-trading, weekends and public holidays).
  • Leave, in all its forms, is a very important indicator of the well being of workers and in establishing a balance between work and life.
  • It could mean having time to rest, time to recover from illness, or time to participate in important private, cultural and community events.

Examples: Overtime, guaranteed minimum hours, short-time, averaging of hours, compressed working week, shift work.

Legislated minimums and other  benchmarks


Ordinary hours of work

An employer may not require or permit an employee to work more than 45 hours in a week, or 9 hours on any day if the employee works 5 days or fewer in a week, or 8 hours in any day if the employee works for more than 5 days in a week. (Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Section 9).

Legislated minimums and other benchmarks

Overtime – Collective Agreement and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act

  • The legal minimums of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act can be varied further only by collective agreement. A negotiator, therefore, has an opportunity to resist these variations in collective bargaining.
  • Understanding what time is considered ordinary hours and what time is considered overtime can become very complex if a collective agreement includes all the variations that are allowed by the BCEA. This is something to avoid.
  • In the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, section 9(2), the maximum ordinary hours of work can be varied by agreement up to 10 hours for a short week (5 days or fewer) and 9 hours per day for a 6 day week.

More benchmarks

More about overtime

  • Sections 11 and 12 allow an employer to require an employee to work very long hours in some weeks, while keeping hours lower in other weeks, and to still meet the limits allowed by the Act. The limits here are: (a) an average of 45 ordinary hours per week over the agreed period and (b) an average of 5 hours overtime in a week over the agreed period.
  • Section 11 (1) Compressed working week: An agreement in writing may require or permit an employee to work up to 12 hours in a day, inclusive of meal intervals (Section 14) without receiving overtime pay. The limits here are: (a) maximum 45 hours of work in any week; (b) 10 hours of overtime in any week, or (c) 5 days in any week.
  • Section 12: A collective agreement can allow the averaging of ordinary hours of work and overtime over a period of up to 4 months

4. Health and safety at work

Principle: Maintaining and promoting worker health and safety in the workplace and in the course of workers’ duties.


  • Designated health and safety representatives with duties and powers.
  • Evaluating hazards in the workplace

Legislated minimums and other  benchmarks



Eligibility of safety representatives: Only those employees employed in a full-time capacity at a specific workplace and who are acquainted with conditions and activities at that workplace or section thereof, as the case may be, shall be eligible for designation as health and safety representatives for that workplace or section. (Occupational Health and Safety Act, Section 17.1).

Threshold for safety representatives: Every employer who has more than 20 employees in his employment at any workplace, shall … designate in writing for a specified period health and safety representatives for such workplace, or for different sections thereof. (Occupational Health and Safety Act, Section 17.1).

Legislated Minimums & Other Benchmarks

Number of health and safety representatives: The number of health and safety representatives for a workplace or section thereof shall, in the case of shops and offices be at least 1 for every 100 employees or part thereof, and in the case of all other workplaces, at least 1 health and safety representative for every 50 employees or part thereof: provided that those employees performing work at a workplace other than that where they ordinarily report for duty, shall be deemed to be working at the workplace where they so report for duty. (Occupational Health and Safety Act, Section 17.5).

Hours of work of health and safety representatives

All activities regarding the designation, function and training of representatives must be performed during normal working hours.

More benchmarks

Role and function of health and safety representatives.

Health and safety representatives are entitled to do the following:

(1) Representatives may check the effectiveness of health and safety measures by means of health and safety audits.

(2) Representatives may identify potential dangers in the workplace and report them to the health and safety committee or the employer.

(3) Representatives may, together with the employer, investigate incidents or complaints from workers regarding health and safety matters and report them in writing.

(4) Representatives may make representations regarding the safety of the workplace to the employer or the health and safety committee or, where the representations are unsuccessful, to an inspector.

(5) Representatives may (a) inspect the workplace after notifying the employer of the inspection, (b) participate in discussions with inspectors at the workplace and accompany inspectors on inspections, (c) Inspect documents, (d) with the consent of his/her employer, be accompanied by a technical advisor during an inspection.

(6) Representatives must attend health and safety committee meetings. (Department of Employment & Labour, Health & Safety in the Workplace).

5. Legal norms and minimums

Principle: References to the existing laws which establish minimum conditions and codes of good practice


Legislated minimums and other Benchmarks



Collective bargaining and other agreements

  • Bargaining Council Agreements
  • Collective Bargaining Agreements
  • Sectoral Determinations

You can find Acts and Codes of Good Practice here.

Remember that most of these examples describe minimum conditions of law, and a negotiator would try to go beyond these minimum levels. But if certain conditions are not yet in an agreement, then the minimum level is a good starting point.

There are many other conditions at work. You can find ten more conditions in our Framework for Negotiating Conditions at Work document. The document contains 15 minimum conditions at work upon which a negotiator can build. Use it as:

  • a checklist of what to look for in collective agreements and to identify conditions that can still be negotiated. 
  • a basic resource for negotiating conditions at work in less formal settings.

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