Nearly 3,000 workers from 15 security companies in South Africa are on an indefinite strike since January 21, Tuesday, demanding the payment of wages that are due from December.
The workers are employed by companies contracted by the Department of Community, Safety, Security and Liaison of the Mpumalanga provincial government. They provide security for clinics, hospitals, South African Social Security Agency offices and licensing departments.
The protesting workers are members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), which is affiliated to COSATU – an ally of the ruling African National Congress. The union has argued that the non-payment of wages on time amounts to a unilateral change in the conditions of employment by the employer. SATAWU spokesperson Zanele Sabela, while speaking to Peoples Dispatch, said, “SATAWU declared a dispute with the CCMA on January 16 and gave a 48-hour notice of strike on January 19.”
The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) is the governmental arbitration body which has to be notified of the dispute before any strike action is undertaken.
According to Sabela, there are no plans to call off the strike anytime soon, which “will continue until workers are paid.” Earning anywhere between USD 300-386 a month in a country where the living wage for a single adult is estimated to be USD 418, most security guards in South Africa barely manage to survive, with little savings to sustain them for months without pay.
On the other hand, the employers, including V&M Security, Blue Lion Security and PMD Security, among others, have claimed that they are not in a position to pay the guards because the provincial government department which has contracted them has not paid their charges since December.
“These are small businesses whose cash flow depends on creditors paying their invoices on time. Government like any other creditor has the responsibility to honor agreed terms of payment,” Zanela said.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the security companies last week, the Department of Community, Safety, Security and Liaison has said that “due to financial constraints in the Department, invoices for December 2019, January and February 2020.. will only be paid in April 2020.”
“That effectively means workers will not be paid until April,” SATAWU claimed in a statement on January 21, when the strike action began. The statement also warned the provincial government department to take measures to address their grievances “if it wishes to have its sites secured.”
In South Africa, which has a high crime rate, security guards play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of people and property, and twice outnumber the combined strength of the police and the armed forces.
Yet, this is not the first time that security guards in Mpumalanga province have been forced to go without pay. This happens every year, the union says.
Zanela insists that the “department must budget appropriately and stop expecting service providers and their employees to subsidize them, which is in fact what is happening here.”