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  • Can government facilitate participative workplace change?An examination of the Workplace Challenge Project in the Cape fish processing industry
  • Shane Godfrey (bio) and Johann Maree (bio)


Industrial policy in South Africa has undergone significant changes in the last decade. The lowering of tariff barriers in compliance with GATT and then WTO requirements has been paralleled by a shift in focus on the part of the state to the supply-side, with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) introducing various measures to encourage investment and stimulate competitiveness. Among the supply-side measures is the Workplace Challenge Project (WCP), which was launched by the DTI in 1995.

The broad aim of the WCP – to assist South African firms to transform into world class performers – fits firmly within the realm of industrial policy. But the WCP has a unique feature that bears the stamp of the government's labour relations policy. In brief, the WCP subsidises the employment of a consultant by a firm to help it design and implement projects that will improve one or other aspect of its performance. It is however a compulsory requirement of the WCP that both management and workers must participate in the improvement project undertaken at the firm. To this end, representatives from both management and workers are required to form a steering committee that decides on the nature of the project to be undertaken, appoints the consultant(s) to assist them in implementing the project, and monitors (and in some cases is actively involved in) the implementation of the project. The WCP therefore combines the objectives of labour relations policy – to reduce adversarialism in the post-apartheid workplace and enhance worker participation in decision-making [End Page 30] – with the objective of industrial policy to assist firms to become internationally competitive. In fact, it seeks to do more than merely combine the two policies: the two objectives are seen as complementary. Better relations and more efficient work processes will interact with one another to ensure a virtuous circle of performance improvement.

In theory the integration of labour relations policy and industrial policy makes sense. They have a lot of common ground (ie the realm of production) and also have broadly similar interests (ie economic development that will create more and better jobs). But there are tensions between labour relations and industrial policy, notably the different modes of regulation they generally adopt. Labour market regulation can be divided into five categories: repressive (rules to prohibit certain actions or outcomes); protective (rules and procedures designed to protect those in weak positions from those in strong positions); facilitating (regulations designed to enable certain developments to take place on a voluntary basis); promotional (rules or programmes designed to promote particular outcomes); and fiscal (taxes and subsidies to encourage certain activities and discourage others) (Standing 1999:41-42). Labour relations policy has generally found expression in legislation that displays strong repressive and protective features, interspersed with facilitating and enabling provisions. Industrial policy, on the other hand, is seldom implemented in the form of legislation. Instead, far more reliance is placed on market regulation supported by a mix of programmes and incentives (ie promotional and fiscal regulation) that seek to steer investor and management decision-making in particular directions.

The WCP provides an innovative attempt at bridging the regulatory modes of industrial and labour market policy through a mix of protective, promotional and fiscal forms of regulation. These factors make the WCP a particularly important topic for research, over and above the intrinsic interest it has as a supply-side measure with a focus on the workplace. In the article we examine the implementation of the WCP at the sector level and at the participating firms in the Cape fish processing industry.1 Our original objective was to evaluate how successful the WCP was in improving the performance of firms. However, we had a particular interest in establishing the contribution that worker participation made to performance improvement. Meeting these aims would simultaneously indicate how successful the WCP had been in meeting its objectives in respect of industrial and labour relations policies. [End Page 31]

Successful workplace change is not a simple or quick process. Not only must the methodology...


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pp. 30-58
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