Council scrambles to prove 60?000 ‘missing’ workers exist

2014-09-07 15:00

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The private sector’s largest bargaining council, the Metals and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC), was rocked this week by a new audit that has decimated the officially recognised membership figures of the sector’s unions.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) has “lost” 80?000 of the 220?000 members it claims to have in the sector. The second-largest union, Solidarity, has had its recognised membership more than halved from 25?000 to only 12?000.

The United Association of SA (Uasa) suffered the same fate, with its claimed membership of more than 14?000 dropping to 7?400 in the new numbers (see table).

Put together, the six unions at the MEIBC are now considered to represent only 40% of the sector’s workers – and only 50% of the workers affected by the wage deal signed after the month-long Numsa strike in July.

The 10% difference is because of large companies like ArcelorMittal SA that negotiate separate wage deals.

The major employer group, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa), represents the employers of only 34% of the affected workers, according to figures verified by the department of labour and distributed to unions and employers this week.

These are the figures with which the MEIBC will next week ask Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant to extend its recent wage deal to the entire sector.

The membership audit that has shocked many in the industry comes in the context of mounting attacks on the whole bargaining council system, especially the extension of its wage agreements to all “non-parties” whenever the people at the table make up half the sector.

The department had insisted on this stringent audit to produce figures that “will stand up in court”.

Oliphant’s decision to extend the previous MEIBC agreement was successfully challenged in court by minority employer group the National Employers’ Association of SA (Neasa).

This time, the department wants absolutely unassailable figures. Neasa refused to sign this year’s deal and promised to challenge any attempt to extend it.

The MEIBC’s general secretary, Thulani Mthiyane, says there are between 45?000 and 60?000 more workers that the department cannot verify exist, but who could potentially be verified later on.

“We hope that these figures will increase dramatically,” he told City Press.

Time is short. The sector’s old wage deal has lapsed and it needs to extend the new one signed last month. Registrar of labour Johan Crouse says both Numsa and Solidarity have requested explanations of the department’s methods.

Crouse says the threshold for a bargaining council to be issued a certificate of representivity is generally 50% or close to it.

The minister has the discretion to extend deals signed by less than 50% of the sector. The 34% that Seifsa represents is “definitely not enough” to give a bargaining council a certificate of representivity, he says.

“If they do not have the numbers, then they need a very good reason for the extension,” Crouse says.

Conveniently, the combined membership of Seifsa and Neasa comes to exactly what was needed to make the council representative.

“If you include Neasa it comes to 50%. Exactly 50%,” Mthiyane says.

Neasa has not signed this year’s wage deal and has no intention of doing so. The MEIBC will have to ask the minister to extend their deal off the back of only 34% employer support.

“We are cognisant of that,” says Mthiyane.

He still believes the numbers are enough to legally extend the agreement without “compromising” the minister.

Seifsa declined to comment.

Where did the jobs go?

No one agrees on how the claimed union members disappeared.

Thulani Mthiyane says the problem is that some companies have changed their names and are now missed by the department of labour when they verify employment in the sector.

He admits some of the missing workers could genuinely be nonexistent, but insists that name changes are “the underlying cause” and that the discrepancy of 60?000 is “too big” to be believable.

Numsa’s head of collective bargaining for the sector, Steve Nhlapo, blames the department’s use of identity numbers when tracking workers.

He says foreign workers with work permits register with passport numbers and so are missed.

“We were shocked when we got these numbers,” he says. “They are completely wrong.”

According to him, Numsa claims 220?000 members in the sector based on the actual stop orders the union receives.

“There are deep political issues here,” he says.

He believes this could be a way to undermine Numsa in light of its increasing political independence and outspokenness against federation Cosatu, and also alliance partners, particularly

the ANC.

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