Formal unions have lost control of the workers striking and disrupting the construction of Eskom’s urgently needed power station at Medupi, which has been at a standstill for seven weeks.
In a confused echo of the industrial chaos among the platinum mines that led to the Marikana massacre, the demands at Medupi are being driven by a 20-strong workers’ forum complaining the unions have lost the faith of the workers.
Among the demands that sparked the latest unprotected stoppages is that all foreign national workers be removed.
This seemingly xenophobic demand is thought to come from so-called demobilised local workers who have stayed on site in the hope of getting new work.
A workers’ forum allegedly driving the demands that started the current stoppage has been talking to labour federation Cosatu’s new metalworkers’ union, the Liberated Metalworkers’ Union of SA (Limusa), because the existing unions don’t take them seriously.
A member of this forum told City Press the six unions at the Medupi site, of which the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) is the largest, were “reluctant” to take up their demands.
Meanwhile, Eskom believes much of the agitation comes from people who no longer work at Medupi but are holed up in the hostels after being “demobilised”.
The workforce at Medupi has shrunk from about 21 000 to 14 000 since 2013 due to a reduced need for those workers attached to completed parts of the project.
Eskom’s plan is to clear out the hostels and then screen returning workers to remove not only strikers but the apparently sizable contingent of former workers. This should take about two weeks, said Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe.
All workers in the Medupi hostels were asked to take their belongings with them when they left for the long weekend on April 27, he added.
Eskom then got an eviction order, allowing it to clear out the workers who had remained. The plan was to allow the workers not involved in the strike to return and to weed out the people who “do not belong” in the hostels in the first place.
Numsa and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are fighting the order in court.
Numsa’s sector organiser, Steve Nhlapo, said it would be back in court next week.
“They want to evict people who aren’t even there,” he told City Press.
The current stoppage started with a protest march on March 25, during which workers delivered a memorandum with six demands.
According to Phasiwe, there was some uncertainty about who was leading that protest, but “Numsa took ownership of the thing”.
Although the memorandum was signed by Numsa’s regional organiser, Mahlodi Modike, the demands were not solely Numsa’s, but that of “all the unions”, said Nhlapo.
Numsa’s public statements about the demands have been significantly watered down from the original memorandum, which the member of the workers’ forum provided to City Press.
The “completion bonus” of R10 000 being demanded is in addition to “200 hours on normal time to all site employees on their respective rates”.
Other demands relate more directly to the plight of the demobilised workforce.
“We demand that expatriates be removed from this site and [you should] replace them with South Africans, since they have completed their task of imparting or transferring the skills to the South Africans,” reads the second demand.
“Demobilised employees should be absorbed in other companies where expatriates are removed,” it continues.
The word ‘demobilisation’ was just a way to deny retrenchments, said the forum member, because “only armies get demobilised”.
“Whenever you terminate a worker, you need to say it is a retrenchment so that the worker gets the benefits that come with this. This is not xenophobic,” added the forum member, explaining that the foreign workers were there to impart skills and that had been accomplished.
Phasiwe could not give City Press an estimate of how many foreigners were actually at Medupi. But he challenged the premise of the demand to have them removed.
Many of them were welders, he said. Local skills in that department were still lacking, he added.
“You don’t get experienced by welding for two months. This is not basic welding you see on a street corner.”
Eskom also denied that higher-level employees and managers received a “completion bonus” for unit six, the first unit of Medupi that was synchronised to the grid in March.
“The premise is not true,” Phasiwe said of ill-feeling around supposed bonuses that apparently started the current stoppage.
Contractors were asked to report back on these “bonuses” and did so last week.
There were no bonuses, said Phasiwe.
The workers’ forum sent an email to Limusa on April 26, asking the new union to send a delegation to Medupi.
“The public is made to believe that Numsa is leading the ‘strike’, and we are suffering as a result,” reads the email.
The member of the forum who wrote to Limusa added: “All we need is for the leadership to deploy the delegation that will listen to us, and we will help grow this organisation to benefit our masses. Contacting Limusa was an initiative of the workers. After realising this, we had to get on board.
“If we bring new blood, maybe this train will move,” he told City Press. “We will return to the site and proceed to recruit for Limusa.”
Limusa was registered in December with Cedric Gina, the former Numsa president, as its general secretary.
It is meant to be Cosatu’s new Numsa after the established metalworkers’ union broke away from the federation this year.
It is inevitable Limusa will contest for members in Numsa-dominated workplaces. The first big incident of this kind at Toyota SA is seemingly headed for the labour court next week.
“Don’t underestimate Medupi,” Gina told City Press this week.
According to him, Limusa was actively recruiting at the Medupi and Kusile sites. The new union was also in contact with the workers’ forum at the Medupi site.
Limusa was advising the forum to heed the court order and return to work, said Gina.
“Numsa says it is leading that strike, but actually it is a strike committee. We advised workers to heed the interdict and to go back to work.”
He added that Limusa would not recruit from sister union the NUM at the Medupi site.