COMMENT: Can South Africa avoid cyclical strikes?

By Simon Warburton | 29 August 2013

NUMSA is looking for far more than just pay increases

NUMSA is looking for far more than just pay increases

South Africa's huge auto strike that has seen 31,000 workers down tools and production pole-axed for the last nine days is hardly the first time vast industrial unrest has swept the country.

The euphoria only three years ago when South Africa welcomed the planet's best footballers for the World Cup, that feast of sporting drama and excellence designed to showcase the best the country had to offer, has all but evaporated as the country grapples with trying to be at once competitive and improving the lot of its workers.

The current auto dispute is eerily reminiscent of a similar mass strike some three years ago, when up to 70,000 walked out in a row encompassing component makers to forecourt fuel providers and indeed it appears some of those sectors could also walk out next week in an even larger dispute.

South Africa appears to negotiate its auto deals in three-year blocks, but even if this current impasse is resolved, what is to stop it breaking out all over again in 2016?

Several protagonists have lined up on the battle field this time, from the usual main player, NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa), NAAMSA (National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa) and AMEO (Automotive Employers Organisation), all of whom appear to have valid arguments.

NUMSA is pushing for a 14% pay rise coupled with housing and transport benefits, while NAAMSA has offered 8%, citing a South Africa inflation rate of 5.6% and a wish to retain the business of the seven OEMs and two truck and bus companies with operations in the country.

But apart from the stark reality of the wage claim, it's perhaps the linking by NUMSA of any pay deal to the housing and transport package that provides a hinterland to what otherwise seems a relatively straightforward industrial dispute.

The union is asking for a monthly contribution of US$74 towards housing costs and US$12 for help with transportation expenses in order to help its members make ends meet in what NUMSA says are "miserable" living conditions.

The labour body cites a raft of monthly deductions including unemployment insurance, medical cover and retirement contributions, that all seem perfectly normal in western societies, but which it claims leave its members too short at US$343 disposable income at the end of the month to pay rent and other expenses.

That income, insists NUMSA, does not trigger housing benefits, leading automotive staff to live in sub-standard accommodation.

"Your take home pay per month is going to be less than what is required to pay rent," NUMSA chief automotive negotiator, Alex Mashilo, told me from Johannesburg. "What are you going to eat? How are you going to get to work? Where will you get the money to look after your family?

"That is why we have shacks and squatter settlements. What NAAMSA does not tell you is the conditions in which workers live. These workers are living under miserable conditions.

"In fact the 14% workers are demanding will not put them anywhere towards [being] able to live a decent life."

That feeling of frustration came through to me across that crackly phone line from Johannesburg and Mashilo expresses it forcefully but calmly, in contrast to NUMSA's website, whose language appears to be a relic of unions past.

NAAMSA counters its workers are among the most rewarded in South Africa, with stable job prospects and good employment conditions.

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

Is there any way to smooth out the seismic upheavals in the auto sector that rock the industry every three years?

The union has grievances that go way above a simple pay resolution. They want to live nearer to work to alleviate transport costs, they want help with housing as they often have to assist family members who are unemployed in a country where 24% of people are out of work.

These are social matters that most employers in Europe and the US would not have to concern themselves with.

But South Africa is different. The current wave of industrial unrest also encompassing the construction and airline sectors is symptomatic of a desire to seize the moment, to elevate pay issues to a political level.

As I write this the employers body - the South African Automotive Employers Organisation (AMEO) tells me NUMSA has accepted a package but has to put it to its members. There could be a meeting in Johannesburg tonight (29 August) between both sides to ratify any deal.

But in order for this issue not to simply come around again in three years time, there has to be some sort of political recognition of the social situation of workers that has to be tackled. And that's not easy.