Rank & file make their voices heard

Posted on July 7, 2014


There seems to be renewed confidence and determination at rank and file level among organised workers ain South Africa.  Increasingly, there are fresh demands for a “living wage”, for the historic wage gap to be closed, and for the voices of the members to be heard.

This was clearly evident last week week as the 220 000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) who labour in the steel and engineering sectors went on strike. Even the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers that has been at daggers drawn with Numsa over much of the past year, came out in support. As did several other unions and the Cosatu federation.

Most significant was the climbdown by the Numsa leadership that had announced on Sunday that the pay claim of 15 per cent had been reduced to 12 per cent. With the powerful Gauteng region of Numsa leading the charge, the members insisted that the 15 per cent demand remain in place.

This apparently renewed militancy has been characterised as the “Marikana effect”, stemming from the 2012 demand for R12 500 a month by miners at Lonmin’s Marikana operation. It effectively culminated in the recent platinum belt strike that strike won for the strikers, in broad terms, a R1 000 a month pay rise, with the increase back dated to July last year.

The Numsa pay demand comes at a time when food price inflation has been on the rise to close to double digits, the cost of fuel has again increased and electricity charges are also going up. This means that life is becoming harder for the lower paid. And lower paid in this context means anyone in employment earning less than R6 000 a month.

For the majority of the working population, who earn less than R3 000 a month, the future looks increasingly bleak. Any worker in this category who does not achieve a double digit increase during this current negotiation “season” will almost certainly face an effective cut in buying power over the next 12 months. Yet most wage negotiations that have already been concluded are not in double digits.

And it was an awareness of this erosion of buying power, coupled with the fact that miners employed by the three main platinum mining companies received back dated pay, that triggered murmurs of discontent on the platinum belt this week. The discontent was expressed by workers employed by contractors supplying services to the mines.

It is understandable that they feel aggrieved because lesser pay deals were already struck last year by contractors with their workers. In at least one case, the agreement is for three years. But many of the contractors also feel aggrieved since they were unable to work — and be paid — during the strike, but were still liable to pay their employees.

From some union perspectives, this provides another reason to call for permanent jobs of all workers and for the banning of outsourced work, a point raised this week by the Numsa strikers. However, the unions tend to define all temporary or semi-permanent labour provision as “labour broking”.

This is problematic, especially in the agricultural sector where large numbers of temporary staff are required during harvest time. But there are also many contacted service providers almost across the board. They supply labour dealing with everything from cleaning, security and catering to shaft sinkers and other specialist work on mines.

Some of this outsourced work is clearly in line with the government’s stress on providing employment for small, medium and even micro enterprises. These also usually include a black economic empowerment (BEE) component.

The objection of the unions is that such outsourcing of labour is open to abuse; that providers of labour — “brokers” — can undercut existing rates for the job and provide few or none of the legal benefits to the workers they supply to clients. Labour broking, according to the unions, is a form of “modern slave trade”.

However, employers — both providers and clients — counter that this is not a problem of the system, but of monitoring and enforcement; that it is up to unions and the labour department to ensure that such practices are stopped. Chapter nine of the Labour Relations Act in fact makes it clear that providers of “temporary employment services” are the employers of the workers they supply and that breaches of pay and conditions are illegal.

There is clearly a problem here.  And it has again been forcefully raised.  Perhaps it is time that some serious solutions were sought — and implemented.