Talks between striking sanitation workers, Durban municipality to begin on Monday

The water and sanitation workers in eThekwini municipality have been on strike since April 23, demanding equal pay for equal work. 1 person was killed on Thursday after the police fired at the workers.

May 04, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch

One person was killed and 31 arrested after after the police fired on hundreds of striking workers of the eThekwini municipality in Durban city. The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU), which has been leading the strike, has said that it cannot as yet confirm whether the victim was a member of the public or the one of their workers. The strike over equal pay for equal work began on April 23.

Those who were arrested face charges of attempt to murder. The police firing took place after the workers, who were furious over their concerns being unresolved, vented their anger by damaging bins and smashing shop windows. The arrested workers were later released on bail, SAMWU said.

The dispute began when the workers found that 55 of their colleagues who were former members of the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) – the erstwhile armed wing of the ruling African National Congress – had their salaries raised by more than 100% from R6,000 to R20,000. This shifted their pay grade from Grade 4, assigned to those who have not passed matric (or school-leaving exam), to Grade 10, which is reserved for those regarded as qualified.

“Why would an MK veteran without a matric be promoted to a level of a qualified person?”, asked, the eThekwini chairperson of SAMWU, Abraham Mchunu. The union put forth the demand that the pay grades of the rest of the workers be raised to the same, in accordance with the principal of ‘equal pay for equal work’.

After a strike notice went unheeded, the workers began the action on April 23, beginning with the municipal offices of Pinetown and Springfield in the western and northern areas of Durban. Two days later, when the authorities gave no assurance of resolving the dispute, the striking workers blocked the entrances to these offices using water tankers.

“We are not against the promotion of MK veterans but we must be all be promoted. We all came here to work because we all need money. No one should be treated in a special manner,” one protester told Ground up.

With the workers having downed tools, the water pipes that got damaged during a storm in the area went unrepaired, leaving residents without water supply. The municipality was quick to blame the striking workers. Municipal spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela even accused them of sabotage.

This accusation was echoed by Heinz de Boer, member of the right-wing opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, who accused the workers of “subtle instances of sabotage”, and demanded that the police and military be used to “safeguard public infrastructure.”

But when the residents came out to protest the lack of water, the authorities were quick to deploy the police. “The police fired rubber bullets at us. There are people in hospital today because they were fighting for our basic needs. The people we elected failed us,” an elderly shack dweller told Eyewitness News.  

Meanwhile, the strike by the sanitation staff escalated. Workers in the electricity department joined in the protests. Trucks used by Durban Solid Waste (DSW), the electricity department, and the department of roads and transport were left in the middle of the road, blocking the traffic while hundreds gathered outside the Durban city hall to protest. Lifeguards also left their posts on the beaches to join the protests in solidarity. On April 30, the police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at the protesters who had assembled outside the city hall.

On Thursday too, the protesters blocked the roads with trucks as they, along with union representatives, marched to the city hall. It was during the course of this march that the police attacked them, killing one person.

Nevertheless, the union leaders did manage to meet the municipal authorities to discuss the dispute, although no resolution was reached. “After lengthy consultations between us and the union representatives, we decided to refer the matter to the central bargaining council for further negotiations and determination. Discussions will start on Monday,” said Jaycee Ncanana, a union leader. The deliberations at the council are set to end after 30 days.