A strike by 36,000 South African freight rail and port workers who are seeking a wage increase for inflation has entered its second week. The strike is costing South Africa’s economy an estimated $44 million a day.
Anele Kiet, deputy secretary-general of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, or SATAWU, said that Transnet, the state-owned enterprise responsible for the country’s freight rail and port systems, needs to direct more of its profits toward its workers.
“We can’t say the economy is being sabotaged by workers who have worked during the hard time of COVID. Transnet workers were working during [the] hard lockdown. And last financial year, Transnet declared R5 billion profit, so we are saying let workers benefit from that R5 billion instead of only the executives,” Kiet said.
His union joined the United National Transport Union (UNTU) in the demand for double-digit wage increases ranging from 12 to 13 percent.
Kiet said the unions are not happy with the 6 percent increase proposed by the Council for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the body which has been overseeing the talks.
“No, look, our members are saying they want double digits [wage increases] but we are saying, as leadership, double digits or anything above the inflation rate, we are flexible on that,” Kiet said.
In July, South Africa’s inflation hit a 13-year peak of 7.8 percent.
Transnet’s CEO Portia Derby has been quoted as saying that despite public sentiment that Transnet should pay whatever is required to end the strike, she and other executives have a responsibility to improve the company’s finances.
She said roughly 66 percent of the company’s operating cost goes to labor — a number she called unsustainable.
A Transnet employee confirmed that a negotiating team was locked in talks at the CCMA, but was unable to say when they might issue a statement.
The CEO of the South Africa’s Road Freight Association, Gavin Kelly, said the situation is dire, with several African countries’ exports and imports being affected.
“It can be anything from perishable goods, you know, fruits and meats and those sorts of things, to bulk types of cargos like coal or iron ore or chrome to machinery parts. It’s really anything that is either produced within South Africa and Africa or mined,” Kelly said.
Professor Bonang Mohale, head of nonprofit Business Unity South Africa, has urged all stakeholders to work together. The nonprofit has 67 members, including the Minerals Council of South Africa, which represents mines in South Africa that contribute 50 percent of Transnet’s revenue.
“That’s how winning economies everywhere else in the world have come out of the hole,” Mohale said. “There’s no way that [the] government alone would be able to pull us out of the hole that we have dug ourselves into. It’s only when government and business and labor work to the best interest of South Africa inc. because none of us can be prosperous if we are only concerned about self.”
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has urged all parties to act in the best interest of the country.