Bending the rules until they break

2014-05-25 15:01

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As workers in the platinum belt stick to their demands, the whole system of collective bargaining walks a tightrope. Dewald van Rensburg reports

The four-month platinum strike is not the only thing bending all the known rules of South Africa’s labour regime beyond recognition.

The implosion of labour federation Cosatu beyond the mining industry and the rising tide of employer backlash against unions point towards more breaks from the traditions of collective bargaining.

The surprising initiative by labour court Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker this week to mediate between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and platinum companies instead of hearing the urgent application the union had brought to court, had not produced anything tangible by Friday afternoon.

The mere fact that a judge has tried to revive talks instead of adding yet another case related to the strike to the court roll, signifies that all the labour relations institutions available have failed.

If the platinum strike continues for another two weeks there is a real chance that large parts of the gold sector will join in.

Amcu will be back in court on June 5 to argue why it should be allowed to call its gold members out on a strike after the Chamber of Mines concluded a wage deal with other unions.

The crux of the matter is that Amcu is a minority union in the gold sector as a whole, but is the majority union at a number of very large gold mines.

Warnings about South Africa’s increasingly “adversarial” labour relations started long before the mining strikes of 2012, the Marikana massacre or the current platinum impasse.

Four people have been murdered in the past two weeks, but that is still nowhere near as violent as the security guard strike in 2006, which saw roughly 60 strike-breakers killed – more than the death toll at Marikana in 2012.

Far subtler challenges are, however, still mounting that could undermine South Africa’s wage-setting mechanisms and lead to more widespread unrest.

In the background, the Constitutional Court case driven by the Free Market Foundation to challenge the bargaining council system that sets wages in most of the manufacturing industries is still pending.

If that case succeeds, it would undermine the major institution that unions rely on to equalise wages across sectors.

Within the bargaining council system, employers’ long-standing pleas for two-tier labour markets – in effect meaning reduced wages – is becoming more and more part of the mainstream.

The apparent disintegration of Cosatu could also open the door to new union rivalries, as seems to be happening in the Eastern Cape.

Metals sector employers seek lower wages

Employers in the sprawling metals and engineering sectors are going into this year’s wage talks with radical counterdemands for their 290?000 employees to ponder.

In effect, they are demanding wage cuts, a move beyond commonplace calls for “moderation”.

Theirs is a three-year offer of exactly the inflation rate, 50% lower wages into perpetuity for new employees, generous exemptions for smaller companies as well as lower wages for “depressed or remote” regions.

These are among the demands the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa) put on the table this week in the largest bargaining council in the private sector, the Metals and Engineering Industry Bargaining Council (MEIBC).

This is “just an opening position”, Lucio Trentini, Seifsa’s operational director, told City Press this week.

The kinds of minimum wages being talked about currently range from R30.61 per hour for unskilled workers to R56.08 for artisans.

With normal 40-hour weeks, that amounts to between R5?300 and R9?713 per month. With benefits and allowances included, the range is more like R7?400 to R13?600, claims Trentini.

Kaizar Nyatsumba, Seifsa’s CEO, said: “This is the first time that the employers present demands.”

Seifsa’s wage cut proposal echoes one that was tried, but which failed, in the clothing sector. In 2011, the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu) agreed to a 20% to 30% cut in new workers’ wages – in exchange for demonstrable new employment.

The new employment did not materialise, which employers partly blamed on the new workers’ unhappiness with getting paid less for doing the same work as their counterparts. That scheme was subsequently scrapped.

Seifsa also wants to introduce the two-tiered wage system that the clothing sector has been trying to destroy.

It wants “discounted rates of pay” for companies in “remote and depressed” areas “on a permanent basis”.

A lot of the depressed regions Seifsa has in mind are actually the same places where the war over clothing sector wages was most fierce, including Newcastle.

The overall wage increase demand from the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) is 15%, but it also wants a sectorwide housing allowance of R2?500.

The union is also contentiously demanding that not a single employer in the industry use the recently created youth wage subsidy.

Numsa vs Satawu

Numsa members at Transnet’s Ngqura Container Terminal have been on strike for a month. The small strike has been accompanied by Numsa’s trademark demand for a ban on labour brokers, but it has also been a fight between Numsa and its fellow Cosatu-affiliated union, the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu).

According to Cosatu’s “one sector, one union” policy, Numsa is encroaching on Satawu’s turf by even having members at Ngqura, but the Numsa central executive committee last week called it “collusion between Transnet management and Satawu?...?to undermine the right of these workers to join the union of their choice”.

Numsa last year resolved to become a “general” union recruiting outside its traditional sectors, paving the way for competition with all other Cosatu unions.

Although the expectation was that Numsa would start picking up disaffected mine workers alongside Amcu, this small conflict in the Eastern Cape shows that the inevitable battles within Cosatu could flare up anywhere.

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