Gordhan: Eskom workers expected back at work as bargaining resumes

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Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Presidential Climate Change Commission
  • Eskom says it has reached an agreement with unions Numsa and NUM at the Central Bargaining Forum.
  • The unions have asked their members to return to work. 
  • However, the maintenance backlog will still take time to clear. 

Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan said while protest disruptions at Eskom operations had plunged South Africa into stage 6 load shedding, his department and Eskom were hopeful that workers would report for duty on Wednesday.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Eskom said after a "productive" meeting between the utility and union leadership, it could confirm that it had agreed in principle to a way forward with labour unions during wage talks at the Central Bargaining Forum on Friday. 

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) have asked their members to return to work immediately. Earlier, the unions had said in a joint statement that meetings with Eskom leadership had yielded progress and they expected a new offer to be tabled.

This comes as Eskom announced stage 6 load shedding due to continued obstruction of access to Eskom stations and intimidation of staff since last week, which left maintenance work undone and multiple units unavailable to the power system, amounting to a shortfall of some 6 000 MW.

Eskom said even if the workforce is back in action on Wednesday, the maintenance backlog will take some time to clear. 

The new developments follow several days of rising tensions at the power utility. During a virtual briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan shared images with reporters of Eskom staff members' homes and cars that were petrol bombed in a bid to intimidate them from reporting for duty.

READ | If power station protests persist, there'll be much more load shedding, Eskom warns

Gordhan said at a number of power stations up to 90% of staff could not attend to their duties due to intimidation in person, over the telephone and attacks on working staff members' property.

"This intimidation, as I am sure most South Africans will agree, is unacceptable. Everything will be done to ensure that we bring the supply of electricity back to normality sooner rather than later," Gordhan said.

Gordhan warned that the continued intimidation of Eskom's staff at operations, which constitute an essential service, had wrought economic and reputational damage on the country.

But, he said, if workers returned to work on Wednesday, work could proceed on the recovery of Eskom's plant and to return sites to operation.

"Over a period of this past week or so, a number of units at stations with the exception of a few have been affected. In one station for the entire period since 22 June, 90% of the staff did not report for duty, as a result of intimidation that staff have been subjected to. This is unacceptable in any democracy," he said.

Gordhan said it was typical for South Africa to reach 32 000MW demand in winter, against 28 000MW to 30 000MW capacity that Eskom can deliver under normal circumstances. Breakdowns present an additional challenge, exacerbated by the protests.

"This industrial action has worsened the situation in terms of production of electricity by Eskom. Each of the lower levels means a thousand megawatts that cannot be supplied by the system," Gordhan said. 

"Each municipality that manages load shedding will have two, three or four hours of load shedding on a rotational basis," he added. He added, however, that Eskom and the department hoped staff could work together to prevent stage 6 from continuing through Wednesday. 

Despite the bite of stage 6, Gordhan said South Africa was "nowhere near" a total blackout.

Gordhan told reporters that cities around the world including Tokyo in Japan, Rome in Italy, and Sydney in Australia are beginning to experience electricity supply challenges that have prompted their authorities to ask residence to curb their consumption.

READ | Protesting Eskom workers block roads to power stations, incidents of intimidation reported

He said Eskom CEO Andre De Ruyter would update South Africans on Wednesday morning on the state of its plan to ease the severity of the load shedding. The minister applauded the South African Police Service in its efforts to keep Eskom infrastructure and staff safe during the protest disruptions.

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