Latest strike is the last Medupi straw

2013-08-11 14:00

New rebellion threatening the beleaguered construction site, with some stakeholders disclosing that mass dismissals of workers are on the cards

Contractors say the latest strike is the last straw.

A new rebellion is threatening at Medupi, with several contractors this week swearing they’ve made their last concession to the beleaguered construction site’s increasingly militant workforce.

Visiting Medupi this week, City Press heard from various stakeholders that mass dismissals are being considered, even if it paralyses the construction site for another four months.

Eskom’s apparent willingness to grant increasing demands, one after the other, while imperfectly compensating the contractors that actually employ the workers, has embittered many.

Work at the Medupi Power Station site has once again been, in effect, suspended since the latest strike on July 24 when workers threw stones and set vehicles alight.

This follows the 10 weeks of inactivity earlier this year and Eskom’s inevitable announcement that the power station’s switch-on date has had to be postponed until the second half of 2014.

The layers of relatively powerless contractors sitting between Eskom and the workforce are warning that, for them, losing another few months’ work in order to replace workers en masse might just be worth it.

Despite Eskom reimbursing them for part of the extra expenditure caused by the incessant delays, contractors complain that they will soon be entirely out of pocket.

A number of contractors this week sought court interdicts ordering workers to return to work. In normal workplaces, this would mean the real threat of dismissal.

Eskom would not comment, as it is still negotiating with unions. City Press has, however, learnt that Eskom is becoming more sympathetic to the contractors’ suggestion of harsh punitive actions.

As the work on Medupi slowly approaches its latter phases, workers are pushing for larger premiums on the going wages in the construction industry after already winning significant concessions.

Eskom has already agreed to pay for a Medupi-wide minimum wage of R25 per hour after the contractors that actually employ the workers refused, says Deon Reyneke of the union Solidarity.

The minimum wage in the civil engineering sector is R20.50.

A construction company boss this week said Medupi workers are paid at least R3 an hour more than the going rate at any other large construction site in the country.

The premium is however, being paid as an allowance and one of the new demands is that it be incorporated in the wages – raising the basis for benefits like pension contributions and overtime.

There are also new demands around travel and commuting allowances.

Justice Ledwaba, chair of the Lephalale Business Forum, says the low productivity at Medupi has become an embarrassment for South African companies.

“If you go to the Indians and say you’ve worked on Medupi, they say ‘yes, and you couldn’t finish the work’,” says Ledwaba.

“Instead of getting the work done, Eskom is trying to bribe people,” says Ledwaba of Eskom’s attempts to broker peace by acceding to workers’ demands.

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‘Political forces’ in play at Medupi

“Political forces” are destabilising labour relations at Eskom’s Medupi Power Station, claim various businessmen in Lephalale.

Fingers are being pointed at the Limpopo town’s mayor, Jack Maeko, by both Justice Ledwaba, chairperson of the local Black Business Council and the Lephalale Business Council, and Wayne Derkson, president of the Lephalale Chamber of Commerce.

Ledwaba claims Maeko has been approaching contractors on the Medupi site for large “donations” to the ANC – and orchestrating wildcat strikes if they refuse.

It is not clear if these donations even end up with the ANC, adds Ledwaba.

Maeko denies the allegations.

“Why would I disrupt my own project and undermine service delivery?”

Ledwaba is also the CEO of Lephalale Site Services, the caterer providing 20 000 meals a day to the Medupi workforce. This contract is worth R450 million over three years and will end soon. Like many Medupi contracts, it was signed for a far shorter period than what it will actually end up taking to build the colossal power station.

Ledwaba says Maeko has personally approached him twice – once to ask for a R100 000 donation and later to borrow his car during the ANC’s centenary celebrations early this year.

Ledwaba says a devastating wildcat strike erupted among his company’s employees shortly after he rebuffed Maeko.

The strike late last month could lead to the retrenchment of 177 employees, he says.

He believes the mayor incited the strike, as well as strikes that have hit other companies.

Ledwaba has already been sued for defamation after making similar claims about Bob Naidoo, Lephalale's municipal manager. He also claims to have received death threats.

The police say they can’t do anything because the threats are being made from throw-away cellphones, says Ledwaba.

Maeko dismisses Ledwaba’s claims with a laugh, but says he won’t pursue his own defamation claim because he believes in freedom of speech.

According to Ledwaba, Maeko is part of the provincial leadership deployed by recently resigned Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale and may soon find himself redeployed.

Ledwaba was recently part of a delegation that met with Soviet Lekganyane, a member of the ANC’s Limpopo task team, to request a replacement for Maeko.

“A decision has already been taken to remove him,” says Ledwaba.

“We do not know how long it will take,” he adds.

The delegation comprised members of the Lephalale Business Council, the local Lephalale ANC branch as well as the party’s Waterberg region.

Fanie Modimola, chairperson of the branch, confirmed the meeting.

Maeko says he knows nothing of plans to replace him.

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