Inside Labour: Rank and file make their voices heard

2014-07-08 12:00

There seems to be renewed confidence and ­determination among organised workers at rank and file ­level.

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 this 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 loggerheads with Numsa over much of the past year, came out in support, as did several other ­unions and the labour federation Cosatu.

Most significant was the climbdown by Numsa leadership that had announced on Sunday that the pay claim of 15% had been reduced to 12%. With the powerful Gauteng region of Numsa leading the charge, the members insisted the 15% demand remains 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 won for the strikers, in broad terms, a R1?000-a-month pay rise, backdated 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 life is becoming harder for the lower paid – in this context anyone 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 backdated 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 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 ­because 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 for all workers in any ­enterprise. This means the banning of outsourced work, a point raised this week by the Numsa strikers with placards demanding a ban on “labour broking”. However, the unions tend to define all temporary or semipermanent labour ­provision in this way.

This is problematic, especially in the agricultural sector where large numbers of temporary staff are required during harvest time. But there are also many contracted service ­providers almost across the board. They supply labour ­dealing with everything from cleaning, security and catering to shaft sinking 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 BEE component.

The objection of the unions is that such outsourcing of labour is open to abuse; that providers of labour can undercut existing rates 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 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 9 of the Labour ­Relations Act 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.

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