The application to interdict 10 000 striking workers in the plastic industry was dismissed by the labour court on Friday morning.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has declared it a win for its members who downed tools on Monday.
“This is a victory … especially for vulnerable workers who are working for the plastic sector, who have been exploited since 2011,” said the national sector coordinator of Numsa, Vusumzi Mabho. “We are going to intensify the mobilisation for the strike … even for those who were mislead and threatened by their employer … [who said] our strike was unlawful. Now the court has proven us right.”
At the hearing on Wednesday in the Johannesburg labour court, Mzoxolo Ndlobeni, a father of five, told New Frame that he did not know how he could support his family on the proposed R26 an hour. He has worked for a plastic bag manufacturer for 30 years. Together with his wife, he pays university fees for their eldest child and school fees for the other four. He spends R15.50 on public transport for a one-way trip to work.
The proposed downgrade in salary and increase in working hours was introduced in 2016 by the Plastic Negotiating Forum (PNF), the bargaining chamber of the plastic sector. This prompted the strike. According to Numsa, the proposal will adversely affect thousands of workers in the sector.
For Ndlobeni, the new conditions of employment will increase the working hours a week from 40 to 45 hours without overtime.
When negotiations deadlocked between organised labour and employers on 10 October, a national shutdown was launched.
The indefinite strike of over 10 000 workers from 450 companies began on Monday. Workers demand that there be no downgrade in conditions of employment, a 15% pay increase and a two-year wage agreement, among other things.
“Conditions that have been applicable all along are now the main agreement conditions because of the establishment of the PNF,” said Mabho.
Mabho also told New Frame that if the PNF gets its way, workers who get R46 an hour or above will receive as little as R26 per hour.
For years the conditions of employment in the plastic sector was regulated by the Metals and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC).
Under the initial main agreement by the MEIBC, a general worker gets R46 an hour along with other benefits. The plastic sector was bound by this agreement. But, in 2011, it withdrew its membership from the MEIBC. In 2013, the PNF was established as the sole bargaining council for the plastic industry.
Initially, Numsa contested the establishment of the new structure. This led to a legal dispute in 2014 in the labour court, which ruled in favour of the union.
But the decision was overturned by the labour appeals court in 2016, which found that the PNF had exclusive and sole bargaining powers in the plastic sector within MEIBC. After the court’s decision, Numsa begrudgingly joined the forum.
“We were opposed to it initially, but ultimately, because we did not have a choice – there was a judgment – we participated and engaged in it,” said Mabho.
Numsa did not agree with the schedule of wages and conditions of employment discussed within PNF on the basis that they were fundamentally different from the main agreement under the MEIBC.
Workers picketed in some parts of the country on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Plastics Convertors Association of South Africa (PCA), a group of employers in the plastic sector, petitioned the Johannesburg labour court to interdict the strike.
They told the court that the demand by Numsa to apply the terms of the main agreement concluded by MEIBC were impossible to implement and therefore unlawful. They argued that the conditions of employment in the plastic industry are different from the other sectors within MEIBC, so the establishment of a separate bargaining council was necessary.
But Numsa stated that it was irrelevant whether their demands were within or outside of the PNF. The negotiations were deadlocked. They had a constitutional right to protest, having exhausted all avenues of negotiation between August 2016 and June 2018.
The right to strike, according to Numsa, could only be limited in exceptional circumstances. The assertion that the demand was impossible to implement was not enough to interdict a strike.
The union added that rather than using the courts to stop workers exercising their right to strike, the employers should engage with their demands.
In dismissing the application, Judge Graham Moshoana noted: “As long as a demand is not one that would lead to the violation of the law if acceded to, parties can bargain on anything and everything that involves employer and employee.”