Thousands take to streets as indefinite strike hits South Africa’s engineering sector  

The strike is being led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. The refusal by employers to address the demands for a wage hike is being seen as a betrayal by the workers who had foregone last year’s wage hike to cushion the industry during the COVID-induced lockdown

October 06, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
NUMSA workers stage a protest as part of the engineering workers' strike in South Africa. Photo: PanAfricanism Today.

The first day of the indefinite strike in South Africa’s engineering sector on Tuesday, October 5, saw workers in red T-shirts hit the streets in thousands demanding a wage hike. Marches and rallies were witnessed in Kaserne, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Western Cape. 

In Johannesburg, thousands marched to the office of the Metals Engineering and Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC), where the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) delivered a memorandum to all the employer associations in the sector. Representing 155,000 of the estimated total 300,000 workers in the sector, NUMSA is leading the strike, which is also supported by other unions.

The memorandum states that the National Employers Association of South Africa (NEASA), Consolidated Employers Organisation (CEO) and South African Engineers and Founders Association (SAEFA) “refuse to make any offer that can settle this round of negotiations in the interests of their workers who are NUMSA members. Their main target is to bring back apartheid wages where super exploitation of Black and African labor becomes the order of the day.”

It criticizes the “backward and union bashing stance led, in particular, by right-wing conservative employer associations, of which the leading detachment is NEASA, CEO and SAEFA.”

The only employers’ association in the sector that had made an offer before the beginning of the strike was the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA), which has in the past signed agreements with NUMSA. 

However, “undermined by this backward group of employer associations”, SEIFSA has “adopted an opportunistic stance refusing to make a meaningful offer that can resolve this round of negotiations. This is the reason that NUMSA resolved to serve all employer associations with a notice for an indefinite strike,” the memorandum adds.

Workers feel betrayed

NUMSA has been demanding an 8% wage hike for all workers in the sector for the first year of the agreement and Consumer Price Index (CPI) + 2% improvement for the next two years. “If CPI + 2% falls below 6%, employers must offer 6% or re-open negotiations. This will settle negotiations,” said NUMSA secretary Irvin Jim in a press statement on September 28.

“However, SEIFSA, on behalf of employers, made a proposal of a three-year agreement of only 4.4% increase for the first year. They have also offered CPI + 0.5% for the second year, and CPI + 1% for the third year. We have rejected this offer from SEIFSA. We regard it as an insult, especially given the fact that workers in the engineering sector did not get an increase last year,” he said.

NUMSA’s national spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi Majola, explained that in 2020, when the wage negotiations in the engineering sector were supposed to begin, the employers “asked us to sign a stand still agreement.” Workers agreed and forewent the expected wage hike in order to cushion the industry reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“So the workers have made huge sacrifices,” she said. “These bosses benefited from the fact that workers did not take a hike last year. And we were expecting that they would (now) give back to the workers and their families but they are refusing to. Workers feel betrayed.” 

However, with the beginning of the strike, “SEIFSA has been very eager to meet with us because the strike has had an impact. They want to negotiate,” Majola told Peoples Dispatch. “We hope that when we meet, they will actually give us a meaningful offer. [However] even if we are meeting with employers, we are still on strike until an agreement is in place.”

Derailing centralized collective bargaining 

NUMSA has also made it clear in the memorandum that any agreement has to be centralized and binding on all employers in the sector. To thwart such an agreement, some companies are making “unilateral offers” at the level of plants, “while negotiations at the central level were underway,” the union pointed out.

“If any company has an offer to make, it must persuade other companies through its employer associations so that such an offer is made at a centralized bargaining level,” NUMSA’s memorandum states.  

It adds that “If conservative employer associations such as NEASA, CEO and SAEFA refuse to sign a settlement agreement that can end the current strike, our message to all reasonable employers is that they must leave their associations and join SEIFSA in their numbers as an association of employers that has consistently negotiated and signed agreements in the past in the best interest of collective bargaining.” 

Other demands

Other demands listed in the memorandum include an amendment of Sick Benefit to include 10 days of paternity leave, five days of Family Responsibility Leave, and R1000 (USD 66.67) Underground Allowance for engineers who work below the ground, like miners. The union further demands either 100% of the transportation cost to work for those employees who will need to travel at odd hours when public transport is not available, or an across-the-board travel allowance of R1000.

NUMSA has also called for the expansion of the Provident Fund to include “insured benefits like a funeral cover for all family members, not just an employee” and for “the dropping/cutting of the Youth Wage Subsidy to Employers as it is only benefiting the bosses who are greedy and not creating any additional jobs for our youth as these subsidies to employers intended to do.

Reiterating that the industrial action will continue till these demands are met, Majola added that from Wednesday onwards, “members will stay home and not report to work, although they may picket the workplaces.”