The state-owned company that runs South Africa’s freight rail and port systems is a step closer to ending a strike that has idled imports and exports for nearly two weeks. The union that represents a majority of workers from Transnet has signed a three-year wage deal to end the work stoppage. Not everyone is happy about the move.
The agreement is aimed at ending the walkout which began October 6 and cost the country $44 million a day.
Cobus van Vuuren is the general secretary of the majority United National Transport Union, or UNTU, which signed the multi-year agreement with Transnet. He says the deal is binding on all workers since it represents more than half of the company’s 40,000 unionized workers.
Van Vuuren made his comments as the South African Trade and Allied Workers Union, or SATAWU, the minority union in the dispute, said it would still picket and has consulted lawyers. Vân Vuuren explained his group’s position.
“Unfortunately, we don’t always see eye-to-eye because our philosophies and values both differ. And our understanding of the impact of a protracted strike and the effect that that can have on the greater economy and potential job losses that the economy can suffer is maybe not necessarily shared by SATAWU,” he said.
He added that SATAWU has the right to continue with the industrial action but their strike is now unprotected and they are exposing their members to disciplinary action, which could include dismissal.
Anele Kiet, the deputy secretary-general of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, says the majority union betrayed them.
“Even during the last negotiations, they left SATAWU and went to sign an agreement behind our back,” he said.
SATAWU has been holding out for an inflation-related increase. In July, South Africa’s inflation rate was at 7.8%, the highest in 13 years. UNTU settled for 6% as well as medical and housing allowance increases.
SATAWU also says it wants a no retrenchment (reduction) clause in the wage agreement.
UNTU’s van Vuuren says his union decided not to insist on that because Transnet gave guarantees that it will follow the legal procedures for retrenching (reducing) staff – should it be necessary.
He shed light on how Transnet, which like most state-owned enterprises in South Africa is battling financially, can afford the increases.
“So as far as what we have been informed,” he said. “Their customers especially in the ports has [sic] come on board. They have offered Transnet assistance through a [sic] extra charge which they are willing to pay on every container that is off-loaded or dealt with or processed. And the number that we have been told is R148 [$8.00] per container and taking into consideration that there’s millions of containers that is [sic] off-loaded during the year, you times that by R148, it does come to a substantial amount.”
He also says his union is concerned about intimidation of workers.
“Thus far for today we have not had any reports or any incidents that have been reported with regards to intimidation and violence,” he said. “We have however expressed our concern to Transnet with regards to this potential existing and we trust that Transnet will do anything in their power to make sure that our members can report to work safely… so that productivity can continue to resolve the backlog that exists currently.”
Meanwhile, South African politician Michael Bagraim, the labor spokesperson in parliament for the main opposition Democratic Alliance, praised UNTU and says he hopes the other union will come around.
“It is an enormous relief in that if this carried on for another few weeks, it would’ve crippled the entire economy,” he said.
Lumkile Mondi, economist and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, acknowledges that a big part of the work force is still missing.
“The challenge is that they won’t be as efficient given the SATAWU workers that are absent,” he said.
SATAWU’s Kiet said the leadership of the union was heading to the country’s main port in Durban for talks with other members Wednesday on the legal opinion they have received. He said for now, they remain on strike.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has urged all parties to act in the best interest of the country.