Johannesburg - Workers downed tools on Monday at three South African power stations with more set to follow as a wage strike began at state-run utility Eskom, but the company said its operations had not yet been impacted and branded the stoppage illegal.
Paris Mashego, NUM's energy sector coordinator, told Reuters that wage talks with the utility were in deadlock over the weekend. Eskom provides almost all the power to Africa's most industrialised economy but it was not immediately clear what impact the strike may have on its ability to keep the lights on.
An Eskom spokesperson said operations had not yet been impacted and reiterated the utility's view that its members are prohibited by law from striking.
"Across all of our 27 power stations everything is operating as normal at this stage," spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe said.
"And no one from Eskom is allowed to go on strike because we are defined as essential service providers. Technically anyone who is not at work today will have to explain themselves to their bosses," he said.
He added that Eskom did not feel that negotiations had collapsed. The utility is offering pay hikes of 7% to 9%, while NUM is looking for increases ranging from 12 to 13 percent.
Phasiwe also said NUM members early on Monday morning had blocked roads leading to the Arnot power station east of Johannesburg but police had been called in and the roads were now clear.
NUM has around 15 000 members at Eskom, close to a third of its workforce.
The stoppage coincides with a wage strike by around 15 000 workers in the petrochemical industry that has led to some shortages and was entering its second week on Monday.
NUM: Eskom's offer of 7% is an insult to hardworking Eskom workers
“Eskom's offer of 7% is an insult to hardworking Eskom workers, while keeping the lights burning,” said Sipunzi. "Eskom workers are unable to feed their families."
Demands include a one year wage agreement, of 12% increase for maximum wage earners and a 13% increase for minimum wage earners. Negotiations initially started at 18% for minimum wage earners and 16% for maximum wage earners, explained Paris Mashego, NUM Eskom sector coordinator.
Other demands include occasional leave and selling of leave. “We sell seven days but only get paid five,” said Mashego.
The union said that Eskom failed to address the apartheid wage gap of 50% between the minimum and maximum salary scale. “After 22 years of democracy, Eskom is still paying workers based on the apartheid system,” said Sipunzi. “White employees are still paid more than black people.”
The union also demands a housing allowance of R5 000 per month. “Housing prices are increasing and Eskom workers can’t afford to pay for houses,” said Sipunzi. Those that do not have houses won’t be able to acquire houses in future, he explained.
NUM's 14 824 members across all regions are prepared to strike, with or without the Minimum Service Agreement (MSA). “Eskom is using the absence of an MSA to prevent members using their constitutional right to strike,” said Sipunzi.
“We don’t want the strike to last long. We want the strike to get results,” said Mashego. The announcement of the strike is to get government to listen to the union and to get Eskom’s leadership to reach an agreement with NUM, he said.
“Eskom made a profit R4.6bn … Our members want to get a big share of profit made,” added Mashego.
NUM has consulted with Solidarity Union, and they have agreed with the action to be taken, said Sipunzi. “A major stumbling block may be what Numsa plans to do… Numsa is in negotiations just to compete with NUM,” he said.
In response to a question on how long the strike will continue, Sipunzi said: “We believe if government allows the strike to continue even longer than one day, it will cause damage to business and other sectors.
“A lot of other entities or sectors will suffer, think of hospitals and other businesses that will run without electricity,” said Sipunzi.