“This is not economic sabotage… it’s a living wage campaign,” emphasised National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa secretary general Irvin Jim at the union’s press briefing on Sunday. Numsa’s secretary general was responding to criticism that his union’s current strike – which comes in the wake of the platinum sector’s five month strike – would plunge our already frail economy into a recession. The way Jim sees it, this is of little consequence – the working class is already in a permanent recession. “When the economy is bad, bosses make money; when it is good, bosses [still] make money,” he continued, later adding that the union “has no option but to let our members liberate themselves”.
On Tuesday, an estimated 220 000 metalworkers from Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth downed tools and handed a memorandum with a list of demands to employer representatives. Among the list of demands is the scrapping of labour brokers, a 12 percent wage increase for workers represented by the Steel and Engineering Federation of South Africa (Seifsa) and a R1000 housing allowance. The response to the memorandum has been, err, tense to say the least. “It is deeply regrettable that, at a time when our economy is under considerable strain, our partners in labour would fail to appreciate the consequences of their actions,” responded Seifsa’s chief executive Kaizer Nyatsumba. Gerhard Papenfus – chief executive of the National Employer’s Association of SA (Naesa) – also echoed Nyatsumba’s sentiment; claiming Numsa’s strike is proof that “they aren’t serious about growing the economy…[and] creating an environment that will at least attempt to accommodate millions of unemployed people.”
Wage disputes are in South Africa are about as common as parliamentary corruption scandals. While both workers an employers usually agree that an increase is necessary, agreeing on a figure is almost always the point of contention. Remember during the height of the platinum strike when Anglo American’s CEO Chris Griffiths (who gets paid a basic salary of R6.7 million) moaned that he wasn’t “demanding to be paid what I’m not”? That moment kind of summed up everything that’s wrong with our country’s labour relations. If you google our Gini coefficient – a measure of a country’s inequality – ours ranks as one of the highest in the world. We’re also widely regarded as the “strike capital of the world” – with a study by the Institute for Security Studies showing that we have an average of five protests a day. In short, our labour sector is pretty much f*cked.
As the weeks go on, it should be interesting to see how Numsa’s strike unfolds. On Tuesday their president Andrew Chirwa reiterated that the strike would go for as long as the workers deemed necessary. He also rubbished rumours of economic sabotage saying: “We have no intention of sending the economy into recession…but workers live recession everyday. Even today”. His statement sums up why protests in this country are so problematic. Given that the platinum strike recently ended, this strike will put a huge dent in the economy. But while we may complain about the inconvenience of the strike, poverty is a permanent inconvenience. In the worker’s minds, there simply cannot be any further delay: they need their money and they need it now.
Photography: Rofhiwa Maneta
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