Inside Medupi’s labour pains

Medupi and some of the new developments around Lephalale. Over the past three and a half years, 25?000 houses and a R170?million shopping mall have been built. PHOTO: Lucky Nxumalo
Medupi and some of the new developments around Lephalale. Over the past three and a half years, 25?000 houses and a R170?million shopping mall have been built. PHOTO: Lucky Nxumalo

Lephalale - This week, suspended workers trickled into the Mogol Club in Lephalale, the town closest to the Medupi construction site, to be re-employed after agreeing to conditions endorsed by Eskom.

But the atmosphere was still a tinder-box, City Press found on a visit to Medupi this week, as workers shifted allegiances to competing unions.

There is an alarming crack in the control that the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) has over its members at the massive Medupi Power Station in Limpopo.

This week a senior union official, who asked not to be named, described the desperate tightrope leaders have been forced to walk when dealing with suspicious workers, who often did not understand the issues before them.

“Even your own people can kill you,” he said, if they thought you weren’t helping them get the money they were due.

“Once someone walks around spreading rumours that [they] have been short-paid, people jump on that and say ‘we want that money’, not knowing exactly what money they are talking about.

“You can be labelled untrustworthy and on the side of the contractors,” he said.

Then there was the five-month-long work stoppage last year.

In March, workers at Medupi went on an almost eight-week illegal strike that escalated into violence and intimidation. Hostels and other accommodation, as well as buses, were torched. Eskom said at the time it believed much of the fury had stemmed from “demobilised” or retrenched individuals.

This is just the latest in a series of protracted strikes at the power station, which will eventually produce about 4 600 megawatts of power.

Meschack Robinsons, Numsa’s sector coordinator at Medupi, said Eskom’s acting chief executive, Brian Molefe, had accused Numsa of treason in a senior-level meeting in June, during the strike.

He said Numsa’s general secretary, Irvin Jim, had shot back: “Why don’t you arrest us then?” Eskom had not confirmed the exchange at the time of going to press.

Numsa’s national sector coordinator, Stephen Nhlapo, said this week the three-month disciplinary process, instituted after the March strike, would delay the project by at least another year.

Eskom has taken a hard line after that strike. Some workers were disciplined and about 1 400 employees were dismissed. Their reinstatement is still being negotiated.

The Numsa official, who requested anonymity, said Eskom’s stance had been an “eye-opener for the workers”. Had Eskom taken this stance in 2013, when generators, cars and cranes were destroyed and burnt in violent strikes, more destruction might have been curtailed, he said.

Instead of getting a free pass, as in the past, workers had to agree that the “no work, no pay” principle would be imposed, meaning they would not be paid from the time the “unprotected, illegal, unprocedural, unlawful and violent” strike began. They also had to agree that their annual project bonus would not accrue.

Robinsons said this week Numsa had been “bullied into taking the deal”.

One of the memorandums of demand the workers had put forward at the beginning of the strike was for a R10 000 “completion bonus” for Medupi’s Unit 6, which at the time was not finished.

Robinsons said: “I’m not sure where they got [that idea] from …” When Eskom put the demand to the contractors – who employ Medupi’s workers – “they couldn’t believe it”, he said.

However, Pierre Bezuidenhout from labour union Uasa said contractors had held a celebration on the site when Unit 6 was commissioned in early March. Workers were furious they hadn’t been invited or given their own celebrations and a rumour spread that the contractors were getting the bonuses.

The demand for this bonus has now been rejected.

Another grievance brought by the workers was that Asians were being used to do welding and boilermaking, both jobs that local workers had been trained to do.

Robinsons said only a few Numsa members had been involved in the strikes that turned violent between March and May.

But he admitted that many of the people who burnt buses and barricaded the road to the construction site had worn balaclavas to hide their identities. He said 40 of the 1 400 identified were Uasa members.

The Numsa official who asked not to be named confirmed later it was almost impossible to identify Numsa members in a crowd.

“If we are sure they are Numsa members, our jobs would be a bit easier,” he said.

Part of the problem was that there were too many unions, he said, and workers constantly changed alliances if they felt their demands weren’t being met.

There had been almost no possibility of reasoning with the out-of-control mob at the time the violence broke out. Robinsons said many of those involved were drunk or high – some probably even on the notorious heroin-based drug nyaope, he alleged.

One engagement Numsa officials had had with members during the strike ended in fury as the crowd rejected the agreements achieved between its leadership and contractors. The Numsa official said he believed the rejection started with a “few individuals” who were not members of Numsa.

In November, for example, a major fallout between workers and the leadership caused disgusted Numsa members to leave the union in droves and form the Liberated Metalworkers’ Union of SA.

The new union’s website says the Numsa leadership “opportunistically imposed its will over that union through various forms of despotic manipulation”.

According to the Numsa official, one major reason for the unhappiness among members was their lack of education and understanding of the problems, and of the agreements the union had made with contractors and Eskom. “Some of us didn’t go to school to the highest level; employees don’t understand,” he said.

However, despite the evident friction in the union, the official said the Numsa leadership had not lost control of its members.

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