Workers remain determined to get a living wage

Those in the steel and engineering sectors who are on a countrywide strike say they will not back down from their demand to be paid their dues, especially after the many sacrifices they have had to make.

At least 20 000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) as well as supportive organisations, including the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, are estimated to have marched in Johannesburg, Gqeberha, Durban, Welkom and Cape Town to demand a wage increase for workers in the steel and engineering sectors.

Numsa wants an 8% increase for the first year, and consumer price index (CPI) plus 2% for the second and third years of the wage agreement. This is down from the 15% it initially demanded in a sector with 432 000 workers at factories that manufacture steel products for the automobile, mining and construction industries. Employer organisations, however, are only offering a 4.4% increase in 2021 and inflation-related increases for the two years thereafter.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said engineering and steel workers proactively gave up their wage increases in 2020 to help cushion businesses from the Covid-19 pandemic, and many of those businesses later went on to make profits. The offer of 4.4% “may as well be a 0% offer as far as Numsa is concerned”, Jim said.

“It gives no consideration for the losses which workers experienced as a result of not getting any increase [in 2020]. Numsa rejects this selfish response of greedy employers who want to continue to rake in profits at the expense of workers and their families.” 

5 October 2021: Striking workers’ main demand is an 8% wage increase across the board, whereas employers have offered just 4.4%. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)

In Johannesburg, thousands of workers marched to Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown. James Sebogo, 48, who was among them, has worked in the same position for Wasa Pumps in Kempton Park for 19 years. He said he had never received a promotion or recognition for his contribution, even though he had taught skills to many newcomers at the company. 

With the meagre salary he earns, he is forced to work long hours in order to send decent money to his wife and four children, who live in Taung in the Free State. “If I’m fortunate to get overtime, then I’m able to send them good money. But if not, then I am forced to get by with my normal salary, which is not enough,” he said. 

Sebogo lives alone in Johannesburg and wishes that his family can join him one day in the house he has bought for them. He said he had high hopes for this strike having a positive outcome. 

5 October 2021: A striking worker in Johannesburg carries a poster with a picture of Irvin Jim, the general secretary of Numsa. (Photograph by Oupa Nkosi)

Lerato Mlambo, 22, a recent graduate, has been working at Nuffield, an engineering company in Springs, for only two years but said she was frustrated and disgruntled already. “The working conditions are very oppressive. The thing is that we are not seen at the office as people who are capable, even though I have qualifications.” 

Mlambo demands to be acknowledged as a Black professional and afforded opportunities on merit. She does not want to wait until she is old to be given a token of recognition. She is also cognisant of how old Black workers are treated unfairly.

“I need this now so I can grow and empower others. I would like to be given what is rightfully mine as an employee,” she said. She fully supports the strike and hopes that in return she can do something for her parents, who worked hard to pay for her education. 

5 October 2021: Striking Numsa members march along Bree Street in Johannesburg. (Photograph by Oupa Nkosi)

Time for talking is over

In Durban, thousands of workers marched from King Dinuzulu Road to the City Hall. Among them was Nomusa Mfeka, who said a wage increase was vital to survive. “We want a basic increase at least to meet the high demands as prices of bread, fuel and other basic commodities go up. We also did not get our deserved increase last year. I am afraid that after Covid there could be retrenchments, so we need job security as well.”

Another worker, Thulani Zondo, said: “We want our increase. Period. We have had too much talk, now we act. Last year we lost out as well. I am not sure if I am going to vote this year. Eight percent and nothing else.”

In Gqeberha, the 9km march of about 1 000 workers from New Brighton’s Nangoza Jebe Hall to the City Hall was joined by supporters from the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union and the Makana Citizens Front. But the march took a tragic turn when a Numsa shop steward seemed to have a seizure and died almost instantly. A moment of silence was observed at the destination point for workers to pay their respects. 

5 October 2021: The T-shirt of a striking Numsa member in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, makes reference to demands regarding the Motor Industry Bargaining Council. (Photograph by Sibongile Jonas)

Although the police were aware of the death, they used stun grenades against the marchers in the central business district just as they were reaching their final destination. In a speech to the workers, Mpumzi Maqgungo, a Numsa shop steward at Isuzu, said: “We condemn the actions of the police. They have provoked us. We want to thank you for not allowing yourselves to be provoked. They want us to react so that employers can interdict us.”

Chief among the workers’ complaints was that they gave up their increase last year but it was not appreciated by employers. “Some of us are being exploited by the employer, getting paid far less than others even though we are doing the same work,” said Numsa shop steward Siyabulela Nkco, who works at MW Wheels SA. 

“Last year we didn’t get an increment due to Covid-19, even though we were not the cause of the virus. This year the employer said that they don’t have money and want to offer us a small amount. We plead with employers to go back to being humane and listen to the workers, because it is hard for us all. The 4.4 % they are offering us is nothing compared to what they earn.” 

During the march, a large group of workers broke away and protested briefly in front of the ANC regional office. “Those that have chewed the Covid money are them. What was meant to come to us was taken by the ANC-led government,” they chanted.

5 October 2021: Marchers on the streets of Gqeberha on their way to hand over a memorandum with their demands. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)

Devious tactics

The strike is seen as pivotal in arresting the downward spiral in the remuneration of workers in the steel and engineering sectors, whose employers are represented by three organisations in the Metals and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council. Each employer organisation insists on determining its own minimum wage, making centralised bargaining for one collective agreement for all workers in the sectors very difficult.

Since 2010, there have been no standard pay rates in the metals and engineering sector. The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa) pays a minimum of R49.55 an hour, the National Employers Association of South Africa pays R29.73 an hour, and the South African Engineers and Founders Association has proposed paying engineering workers just R24 an hour.

This has resulted in employers rushing to join the lowest-paying employer association, which was causing a “race to the bottom”, one Numsa member commented. Individual employers have begun to derail the strike by offering their own wage increases to their employees.

5 October 2021: Numsa members arrive at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg. (Photograph by Oupa Nkosi)

“This is an attempt to blackmail workers, who are given these crumbs of unilateral offers at plant level not to embark on the national strike that the union is calling for,” said Jim, urging Numsa members not to accept “those cheap insulting offers”.

Joseph Maiste, 55, said the company he works for does not pay according to the agreed rate. “You don’t get the rate that you are supposed to get and when you ask, they tell you that theirs is the right [rate],” he said. 

Maiste, a forklift driver, believes the company has been robbing him for the past 18 years he has worked there. Life has been an uphill struggle for him and his family as they have been moving from house to house renting backyard rooms. 

His wife tries to help him but the money is never enough. With five children to support, he tries to stretch it as much as he can, but after buying food and paying rent, he is left with just enough money for transport to go to work. “I want a living wage,” Maiste said. “I want to be able to save money and eventually build my family a home that I can be proud of.” 

5 October 2021: Numsa’s national treasurer, Mphumzi Maqungo, addresses striking union members outside the City Hall in Gqeberha. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)

Boost for Numsa

Despite the challenges the engineering strike faces, Numsa is set to benefit from an upturn in pressure by union members from across the political divide who are angry that employers have used the pandemic to freeze wages, downsize and retrench – even as they make record profits.

On the Seifsa website, economist Palesa Molise recently acknowledged that prices for the goods manufactured in the steel and engineering sectors had risen, providing “leeway for producers to improve on margins” and make further profits.

The Numsa strike is also likely to attract the support of public sector workers, who lost out on their negotiated 7% pay increase after the government said Covid-19 spending had used up too much of South Africa’s budget. Public sector union bureaucrats eventually agreed to a tiny 1.5% increase even as law enforcement agencies investigated billions of rands of Covid-19 funds that had been swallowed up by corruption.

5 October 2021: Striking workers in Gqeberha who have broken away from the main group of marchers demonstrate outside the ANC’s office. (Photograph by Sibongile Jonas)

“We are in an unfortunate situation where a government, which is led by the ANC, has failed to take measures that ensure that employers cannot continue with super-exploitation of Black labour. Workers alone must take the future into their own hands,” said Jim.

Numsa will also benefit from a recently thawed relationship and increased solidarity between unions in the rival union federations, namely Saftu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Federation of Unions of South Africa. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), usually a fierce opponent of Numsa in workplaces where both unions organise, announced its support for the strike this week.

“Workers in this sector have made significant contributions to keep the industry afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mawonga Madolo, a metal sector coordinator for the NUM. “They have endured wage cuts, short working hours [and] were subjected to a zero wage increase for the year 2020-2021. The employer gained profits during the same period. The NUM also rejects the ongoing attack on collective bargaining by right-wing employer organisations.” 

5 October 2021: Numsa members in Durban march from King Dinizulu Park in Greyville to the City Hall. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)

On 1 October, four rival unions – the NUM, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, Solidarity and Uasa – from the three federations declared a joint dispute at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mine, announcing that they would strike together if mediation failed. Sibanye-Stillwater declared unprecedented profits of over R25 billion in June this year, 176% higher than that declared the previous year.

The strike is indefinite and will continue with marches to be held in smaller cities and towns. “We want our increase,” said worker Zandile Magutshawa. “We will continue to picket for the whole week until our demands are met. We demand a living wage. At least meet us close to our demands. We are not unreasonable.”  

As the strike entered its second day on 6 October, Jim said Seifsa had asked to reopen negotiations with Numsa.

5 October 2021: A striking worker’s placard demands a living wage. The workers have vowed to continue their strike as wage negotiations continue. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
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