South Africa's automobile manufacturing body is robustly defending itself against criticism by the country's National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA), that wages are insufficient to allow workers adequate housing.

NUMSA is today (19 August) staging the first of an indefinite series of strikes it claims have seen 31,000 workers walk out - although the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (NAAMSA) maintains this figure is closer to 17,000.

The union is demanding a 14.5% pay rise to address what it says are "miserable" living conditions, with employers tabling an offer of 8% for the first year compared to a South African inflation rate of 5.6%.

"What they [NUMSA] are not mentioning is the vehicle manufacturing industry provides stable employment [as well as] very attractive employment conditions and remuneration levels," NAAMSA director, Nico Vermeulen, told just-auto from South Africa.

"The average package workers in this industry take home is the best - [it] compares very favourably to any other manufacturing sector. Other than oil and gas, it pays the highest levels of remuneration."

Talks have been held between NUMSA and the South African Automobile Manufacturers Employers Association (AMEO) and despite no further negotiations today, the body told just-auto it was "working around the clock" to restart discussions.

The auto strike is taking place against what the NAAMSA director said was a background of industrial unrest in South Africa as well as a current unemployment rate of 24%.

"There are no winners in this," said Vermeulen. "When you are at 14% and 8% you are technically quite far apart. The other important point, which is often overlooked, is this industry is known for above-average settlements.

"The last agreements were 10%, 9%, 9%, so there has been a real improvement in the standard of living."

NAAMSA noted the South African motor industry produced around 600,000 vehicles per year, of which around 55% was exported.