Steel wage offer an 'insult' by 'greedy capitalists', says Numsa as strike looms

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Irvin Jim.
Irvin Jim.
  • Numsa secretary general Irvin Jim said the union would hold national marches when an industry strike begins in October.
  • He called on employer associations to come forward and negotiate for a settlement.
  • National Employers' Association of South Africa chief executive Gerhard Papenfus said central bargaining would not serve its businesses' interests.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa's (Numsa) secretary general Irvin Jim says employer associations in the steel and engineering industries have forced the union's hand towards industrial action following deadlocked wage negotiations.

Jim was briefing reporters on Tuesday afternoon about the union's planned protected strike, set to commence on 5 October, after it declared disputes with all industry associations at the steel and engineering wage talks earlier this month.

Numsa declared a cascade of disputes after reaching deadlocks with structures such as the Steel and Engineering Industry Federation of South Africa (Siefsa), the National Employers' Association of South Africa (Neasa) and the Metals Engineering Industries' Bargaining Council (Meibc).

Numsa is also insisting that associations come to the negotiating table with the union instead of arriving at their own wage determinations. During wage talks, Seifsa offered a 4.4% increase for the current year, 0.5% plus CPI in the second year and 1% plus CPI in the third year.

Numsa demanded 8% across the board in the first year, 2% plus CPI in the second year and an opportunity to reopen negotiations if 2% plus CPI does not cover inflation in the third year.

Jim said the union's national executive committee meeting in July determined that collective bargaining was under siege and that a dispute would have to be declared with all federations in metal and engineering in the interest of its members.

"We will be embarking on a strike as a last resort as we have no choice but to push employers to give workers their wage increases and improve their working conditions. We will embark on a national march where we will hand over a memorandum of demands to all associations," said Jim.

Jim said Numsa structures in all nine provinces will hold marches when the strike commences and that all marches will observe Covid-19 lockdown protocols, including social distancing and limits to the number of demonstrators.

Jim also had choice words for Neasa chief executive Gerhard Papenfus, saying he made matters worse when he sought to "reverse workers' rights". He said Neasa wanted a labour regime which is "totally unregulated like the apartheid regime where workers had no rights and could be fired willy-nilly".

"Papenfus has been hostile to any kind of meaningful increase for workers in the engineering sector. He has done everything to ensure that plastics adopt the same attitude. The union and its members has been flexible in its demands," Jim said.

Jim rejected any suggestion that striking was unreasonable, pointing out that Numsa's demands went from 15% and moved down to 8% across for year 1 and a 6% with an option to renegotiate if 6% falls under CPI.

'Offer an insult'

"We rejected the offer from Seifsa and regard it as an insult. Members were expecting workers to respond in kind to the sacrifices that workers made last year in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. They have acted as typical greedy capitalists," he said.

Jim also rejected attempts to create "special dispensation" with phasing in minimum rates as unacceptable and unsustainable. He said employers paying below the minimum rates and being given 15 years to catch up to the minimum rate smacked of exploitation.

He said the union was prepared to declare a settlement in the dispute if the employers and industry associations were willing to meet with Numsa and move from their current positions.

Papenfus said he was not immediately made aware of Jim's remarks about him at Tuesday's briefing, but said he and Jim had had extensive engagements on labour relations and Neasa would not budge from the principle of affordability.

"Irvin Jim is saying things, and everyone is asking me about it and I haven't heard anything. Neasa has an approach where it is the right of every business many to determine the wage of [its] people [based] on affordability," said Papenfus.

Papenfus said Numsa remained locked in the idea of centralised negotiations based on the economic circumstances in big cities while businesses in small towns and other areas have no hope of meeting those demands.

"The economies of scale don't apply to a business in Kakamas. Can you imagine how expensive it is to get steel there or how to get goods to other towns? How can you say that a wage you have negotiated in another business should apply to them?" Papenfus said.

'Waste of time'

Papenfus brushed off any suggestion that he was against negotiating and said Jim could not "get over" the fact that Neasa would not buy into a centralised bargaining system at the expense of smaller businesses.

"I negotiate. But I also freed businesses in the industry from this ploy which has destroyed businesses and jobs. We have youth unemployment of sixty-plus percent. We need to employ people. A minimum wage of R12 000 a month for a sweeper is something employers won't and can't pay," he said.

He added that different associations represented different types of businesses, and this made negotiating with all associations at one table counterproductive for business that could not afford to raise wages at the same scale as others.

"Irvin Jim is a frustrated man. He is a great guy. I love him, but he is frustrated because he is trying to pull me into a system that I want no part of. I stand for a business' right to make its own decisions and he will never get me to shift from that position."
- Gerhard Papenfus

Papenfus said while some believed it was easy for trade unions to sit in one forum and negotiate with everyone, such negotiations "will never happen again" in steel and engineering, adding that trying to put Neasa and Seifsa in the same room was a "waste of time".

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