‘Starvation wage’ fuels unionist’s fight

2011-07-23 18:42

Simon Mofokeng laughs when asked if he’s been affected by the fuel shortage brought about by the petrol strike.

“I don’t think there’s any preference. All of us are members of ­society. I think it does cut across,” ­Mofokeng says.

He’s reluctant to explain how he almost ran out of petrol this week on his way home.

“You and I are in the same position. We’re all members of the community, aren’t we?” he says from his ninth-floor office in Braamfontein, Joburg.

Mofokeng is secretary-general of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppwawu), which is behind the strike by about 70 000 workers from various sectors.

The strike was felt acutely by the public. Fuel shortages forced many filling stations to close shop in Gauteng and led to calls from the taxi, bus and other transport-related sectors for a speedy resolution.

The union demanded a 14% ­increase and 40-hour working week, but backed down to 10% ­after talks with employer bodies.

The demand, which translated to a R4 000 minimum wage a month, followed revelations that some workers earned as little as R1 600 a month.

Employers, including Chevron, Engen, Total, Shell, Blanco and Petro SA, stuck to their initial offer of 8% – which led to a stalemate. On Friday the parties met again for further negotiations.

Says Mofokeng: “A strike is an emotional thing that at all times must be taken very seriously. It’s not as easy as people think it is. Workers are people coming from very poor backgrounds.

“So if you go to them and give them a report and they say we’re not happy, you have to listen. You can’t sleep knowing people’s hopes rest on the union to show leadership. We don’t want a situation where a strike keeps dragging, ­because in the end it’s going to hit their (workers) pockets.

“You must not abuse sacrifices made by workers. Don’t play ­political games. You must do what these workers want. You must try by all means to harness their ­aspirations in a way that shows ­responsibility.”

He knows what it means to earn a “starvation wage”. In 1985 he worked as a labourer at Sasol ­Explosives, earning R150 a ­fortnight.

He says: “I came from a family that had nothing. From the day I was employed I realised the way workers were being treated wasn’t good. Employers then had no ­mercy. We were always defending people every day. It was very hard.”

He started working for the union full-time in 1991. He’d travel to ­far-flung areas like Piet Retief in Mpumalanga to represent wood and forestry plantation workers.

He says: “Some employers were vicious. They wouldn’t allow you to set foot on their premises. You’d ask for a place to hold a meeting and they wouldn’t give it to you. You’d be forced to engage an ­employer standing on the road. Some would bring dogs just to ­intimidate you. But one couldn’t give up.”

Angry workers would assault and hurl insults at shop stewards.

He says: “No, no, no! Being a ­union representative isn’t a ­glamorous job. Working for people requires commitment. It’s not an easy job; it’s not about status. It ­requires a lot of responsibility.”

Political changes are celebrated the world over, but workers “are still struggling”.

He says: “If you look back where we come from, and where we are today, you have a more sophisticated employer. They try to mobilise their resources, their power, to fight back and undermine unions.”

“Our problem is that for the last 10 years they only move on percentages, they don’t move on most of the conditions of employment – leave, bonus, education allowance, housing allowance.”


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