Cape Town – The strike at Medupi power station is expected to resume on Wednesday, after unions representing affected workers met on Tuesday after the Easter break and decided to down tools.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) announced that its workers would join others in strike action on March 25 to highlight their plight or grievances.
The action was halted as Eskom and its contractors met with the unions three times to resolve their demands, but this process was delayed due to the Easter break.
Numsa’s head of collective bargaining Steve Nhlapo told Fin24 on Tuesday that the unions representing about 21 000 workers decided at the meeting on Tuesday that Eskom and its contractors were not listening to their concerns.
“They [Eskom and its contractors] did not even try to respond to workers’ demands,” Nhlapo said. “There were no negotiations at Medupi.”
Eskom warns workers ahead of strike
Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe said the power utility had not heard directly from the unions that they intended to down tools on Wednesday, but said he had heard whisperings of protest action.
“We expect them to arrive for work,” he told Fin24 late on Tuesday afternoon. “If they go on strike, we will only shut down certain parts of the plant and only if they become violent and threaten others.
"If it happened like the last time, then we will have to take precautionary measures.”
The March 25 strike resulted in a lock-down due to violence and intimidation and 1 700 workers received written warnings or were fired, said Phasiwe.
“That process would continue,” said Phasiwe. “If any staff member who was disciplined repeats the offence, that person will face dismissal.”
He said the strike would not affect the synchronisation of unit 6, which is currently pushing 400 megawatts of electricity into the already constrained power grid.
Partnership agreement culprit is Eskom - Numsa
Eskom, which is mediating negotiations between workers and the contractors, said its Partnership Agreement (PA) with unions was set up to avoid such incidents, but Phasiwe said that this process was not followed by unions.
“The strike came as a surprise to us, because we have a programme [PA] to deal with these issues,” he said.
However, Nhlapo said that Eskom was the key culprit for not following the PA. “The Partnership Agreement says clearly that Eskom is the leader of the Medupi project and not the contractors,” he said.
“They don’t even know their own agreement. Eskom should be leading this process, but instead they say that it is up to the contractors to resolve the issues.
“The problem is that so many leaders have left Eskom and now no one knows what to do,” he said. “And the contractors are happy, because they can exploit the workers in the name of Eskom.”
Where’s the War Room?
Nhlapo said he was not holding his breath for any War Room intervention, because in his experience, ministers take their time to engage with the labour movement.
“When a previous strike happened three years ago, it lasted four weeks,” he said. “It took the minister three weeks to meet with labour representatives.
“The state is the client here and the Minister [of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown] should intervene,” he said.
The workers’ demands were that completion bonuses should be given to all workers, not only to senior managers; retrenchments of workers should be halted with immediate effect; and racialised evictions of workers from their subsidised accommodation should end.
Medupi director should be held accountable - Numsa
Nhlapo said the problems facing workers at Medupi would cause further delays at the power station and would create more issues around load shedding. “And it is not the fault of the workers, but that of the contractors and Eskom,” he said.
“It took six years to complete one unit and so it might take Eskom another 16 years to complete the rest,” he said. “And yet they celebrate that Unit 6 is delivering 400 MW into the grid.”
Medupi project director Roman Crookes failed to deliver the project in time and he overstepped the costs, said Nhlapo. “He’s the key driving guy behind the problems at Medupi and he wants to keep the status quo.”
He said Crookes has not been brought to account because Eskom’s leadership keeps changing and by the time they understand the problems, they leave.
“The unfortunate thing is that when managers leave, it takes another three years for the next one to understand the problems,” he said. “And by then, it’s too late.”