New twist in old metals industry battle

2014-07-06 15:00

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Metals industry vow to reject “political” demands

Apparent divisions within the employer camp in the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council are set to complicate a strike already marred by widespread violence.

Ratings agency Moody’s issued a short report warning that the metal and engineering strike will “prolong South Africa’s weak growth cycle”, in effect picking up where the platinum strike left off.

When the major parties do settle, odds are the deal will be challenged.

Three smaller employer groups this week claimed they had already reached a wage agreement for the plastics subsector – and they will not be bound by the main agreement the strike revolves around.

The strike, led by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), is unprotected as far as their members’ factories are concerned.

This is the latest twist in an old battle by smaller employers to undermine the private sector’s largest wage-setting institution, which they say saddles them with unaffordable wages set by bigger employers.

There are seven employer federations and six unions at the table. The size of the Steel and Engineering Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa) and Numsa, however, means that they mostly determine the outcomes.

Seifsa has already improved its prestrike offer far above the alleged deal in the plastics sector’s flat 8% increase.

By Thursday, it was offering the lowest job level (H) 10%, 9% and 8% for 2014 through to 2016.

For the highest “A” job level, it is offering 8% followed by 7% for two years (see table).

A union official with knowledge of the talks told City Press they expected 10% to be more or less what Numsa is really aiming at.

The main issue now seems to be Numsa’s demand for a sectorwide ban on using either labour brokers or the new youth wage subsidy.

Seifsa’s CEO, Kaizer Nyatsumba, has labelled these “political” demands that the federation refuses to address in wage talks.

There was no way Seifsa would accede to a labour broker ban, he said. “You cannot call on business to not take advantage of a thing they can legally do.”

Nyatsumba was also dismissive of the deal by plastics employers. On Friday, he told City Press that he is “not aware of any deal at all in the [bargaining council]”.

The majority union is “not in there”, he said of the separate plastics forum, suggesting that they cannot conclude wage deals with only the minority unions.

Various parties are sending out mixed signals about who the supposed deal will actually apply to, if anyone.

The council has repeatedly asserted that the plastics sector is in fact still bound by the main bargaining council talks.

The talks taking place in the new plastics forum are only “about a future possible dispensation for the plastics sector”, said the bargaining council’s general secretary, Thulani Mthiyane, in a circular last month.

Marius Croucamp, sector head for Solidarity, one of the two unions that accepted the deal, also said on Friday that it “is not finalised”.

the other deal

On Monday, a day before the strike started, the Plastic Converters’ Association of SA (Pcasa), the National ­Employers’ Association of SA (Neasa) and the Border Industrial Employers’ Association announced that they had already reached a deal covering only the plastics ­subsector under the Metal And Engineering Industries Bargaining Council.

They claim it covers roughly 60?000 employees.

“This week’s strikes and picketing are therefore completely illegal”, says Johan Pieterse, CEO of Pcasa.

On Friday Pcasa was preparing a court application “to interdict the strike in our sector”. This followed a separate application in the morning to interdict strike violence by Numsa and hundreds of individually named Numsa ­members in the sector.

The two minority unions, Solidarity and Saewa, that have agreed to the separate deal were given a major carrot: it gives the same 8% increase to all grades instead of the slightly lower increase for the highest-paid workers Numsa traditionally insists on.

That is a major incentive for unions that mostly organise artisans. Smaller employer groups, particularly ­Neasa, have spent years trying to escape the Metal And Engineering Industries Bargaining Council’s wage pacts.

Like most bargaining councils, it requests the minister of labour to extend their wage agreements to the industry as a whole, which she is obliged to do if the employers and unions who sign the deal represent half the ­workforce.

Neasa fought the extension of the previous 2011 deal in the sector tooth and nail in the courts, but ultimately lost the battle last year.

Since then, Neasa, Pcasa and the Border Industrial Employers’ Association have fought for a separate negotiating “forum” for the plastics industry inside the bargaining council, which was created in October last year.

As far as they are concerned, it can negotiate wage deals separately from the rest of the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council with or without Numsa.

“The department of labour and the council are in a process of verifying the levels of representativeness,” ­Pieterse told City Press when asked how ­representative the minority unions that they have talked to are.

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