Eskom: 4 months later and workers still in the dark on unbundling - unions

Trade unions have said that there have been no formal meetings with Eskom to discuss what the unbundling of the power utility will mean for workers - four months since it was first announced.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in February that Eskom will be unbundled into three entities, but unions representing Eskom workers say there has been no formal communication over the plan since then. 

Ramaphosa’s silence on the issue during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week surprised energy experts and unions alike, who say they are in the dark as to what Eskom is planning to do. 

Unions had hoped that Ramaphosa would provide some clarity during his address.

During his SONA address, however, Ramaphosa did not elaborate on the unbundling process. Instead, he announced that a R230bn bailout to the embattled power utility would be expedited.

The only meeting to discuss the unbundling was apparently in March shortly after the announcement. The meeting at the time was between Ramaphosa, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and former energy minister Jeff Radebe in their capacity as ANC officials and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). According to NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu, it was at that meeting where the union was assured that there would be no retrenchments during the unbundling process.

The meeting came on the back of threats by NUM to march to the ANC’s headquarters over the possibility of retrenchments at Eskom. 

According to National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim, the union has also heard nothing in terms of the unbundling.

Both NUM and Numsa are militantly opposed to unbundling efforts and especially any restructuring plans which would mean job losses. 

Solidarity’s Deon Reyneke told Fin24 that the union had received muddled answers when it tried to press Eskom for details on the unbundling question in the past. Solidarity said it would raise the question again during a stakeholder engagement meeting with Eskom planned for Tuesday, he said. 

Reyneke said the union could not say whether it was opposed to the unbundling of the power utility until it knew more about what the process would entail. 

'Advanced' stage

Meanwhile Eskom told Fin24 on Monday that the process was in fact underway, and that the first phase - separating Eskom into the three new companies, responsible for distribution, transmission and generation - is at an "advanced" stage. 

"Eskom has put in place a project team to manage the process of setting up three separate companies (Distribution, Transmission and Generation). The first phase of the separation process which constitutes the relinking of corporate functions back to line divisions has begun and is at an advanced stage. Ultimately, the work of structural reorganisation and setting up of subsidiaries will commence and Eskom will communicate with various stakeholders as the project unfolds," Eskom said. 

But this will be news to the three trade unions. 

Mammburu said it came as a surprise that Ramaphosa did not take the issue forward in his SONA speech. He said it was not clear what this meant, but said NUM was surprised and angered to hear Ramaphosa talk about Eskom being "bloated" during a speech to investors. 

He reportedly said this at a Goldman Sachs Investor Conference about a week after the May elections, which had made the union suspicious that earlier promises that jobs would not be lost was just a ploy to keep NUM from rejecting the ANC during the elections.

Mammburu said, "We will not accept, we will not be a part of any retrenchment process." 

Jim said there appeared to be an "agenda" to "restructure and retrench" at Eskom, despite any assurances made that jobs would not be lost. He said the unions had been promised meetings to discuss the unbundling process but that these had not materialised.  

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