‘The only way to undo apartheid is to pay workers a living wage’

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THE SOUTH African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) has said that it is 100% in solidarity with its affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), in their struggle to negotiate a new wage agreement in the engineering sector.

This comes after NUMSA said last Wednesday that wage negotiations with employers in the engineering sector under the auspices of the bargaining chamber, the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC), are deadlocked.

NUMSA rejected the employers’ offer of a 5.3 per cent wage increase earlier this month, insisting on its demand for a 15 per cent wage increase across the board and an extension of the current agreement for two years.

The metal and engineering sector talks come as the current wage agreement lapses at the end of June. The current minimum wage is at R40 per hour, but the sector wishes to slash entry level salaries by 50 per cent by offering entrance workers R20 per hour.

In a statement, SAFTU said this was a life-and-death battle because if employers get away with what workers are demanding, they would have set a dangerous precedent which their colleagues in other sectors are sure to be quick to copy.

The SAFTU statement said: ‘This is because whereas in the recent past, wage negotiations focused on the size of the percentage increase in workers’ wages and benefits, in these talks the discussion is the other way round.

‘The employers are trying to impose wage decreases which will see new workers in the sector earning only half of the current minimum rate. The employers’ demand is for workers to accept a downward variation of the basic conditions of workers, which will create a two-tier labour market system of equal work for unequal pay.’

NUMSA said it was hoping that employers will come to their senses in time now that we have deadlocked so that it does not have to resort to a strike. SAFTU said it was confident that NUMSA would never agree to proposals which would violate the basic principles of equal pay for work of equal value and that it would back them all the way.

SAFTU pledged: ‘If however the employers fail to improve their offer and workers have no choice but to strike, SAFTU will support them all the way and mobilise solidarity action to ensure that they bring the employers to their senses.’

NUMSA has accused the engineering employers of stalling talks. It says: ‘Engineering employers are ensuring that young workers never attain dignity and equality in the workplace. As we commemorate 41 years of the struggle which was waged by the courageous class of 1976, the Engineering sector in South Africa is actively destroying any possibility that young people in this country will ever attain dignity and equality in the workplace.

‘NUMSA has been meeting employers under the auspices of the bargaining chamber, the MEIBC to negotiate a new wage agreement. Talks have deadlocked because they are trying to impose backward wage proposals which will see new workers in the sector earning only half of the current minimum rate.

‘Currently the minimum wage is at R40 per hour. The engineering sector wishes to slash entry level salaries by 50%. This proposal will affect mostly the youth who are entering the sector, by offering them only R20 per hour, when others are earning twice as much.

‘The engineering sector remains largely white owned, racist and sexist. The lowest pay is reserved for the African majority and workers continue to be exposed to appalling working conditions. The sector drastically needs to transform but very few changes have taken place.

‘Some companies in this sector frequently violate basic health and safety rules, resulting in workers losing their limbs and sometimes even their lives, and yet these companies hardly experience any severe consequences for their actions. Engineering employers want to impose backward racist, sexist policies.

‘This racist, sexist sector wants to penalise women who take maternity leave by denying them their bonus for not working all their shifts; they want to exploit workers by imposing a 45 hour work week, instead of a 40 hour work week, and they wish to reduce the annual leave of new entrants from four weeks to three weeks.

‘They want to impose policies which are a downward variation of the basic conditions of workers.

‘Their goal is to worsen the working conditions and not to improve them. Their proposal is driven by a colonial mentality of white male conservative bosses who are calling on the current generation of workers to betray the future generation.

‘They want this current crop of workers to ensure their own benefits at the expense of younger workers. This will create a two tier labour market system of equal work for unequal pay. Ultimately agreements of this kind lead to the destruction of trade unions.

‘The new generation of workers will reject the trade union movement for having sold them out by accepting deals which were motivated by short term gains and selfish interest. These kinds of deals undermine all the work and sacrifices which workers have made to bring changes to the industry, and improve basic conditions for workers.

‘The reason we have labour law legislation to begin with, is precisely because generations of workers fought and died for these principles which did not exist under Apartheid. Unless the primitive and backward exploitation agenda which is being championed by Gerhard Papenfus of NEASA, as well as other conservative employers in the plastics industry is defeated, we will be taken back to the days of Apartheid.

‘NUMSA will not sell out its members by agreeing to proposals which will violate the basic principles of equal pay for work of equal value. It is precisely because of these and other regressive proposals which have forced NUMSA to declare a dispute and caused wage talks between us and the employer to deadlock.

‘As a militant trade union we cannot even consider proposals which will increase the suffering of our members. Now that we have deadlocked, it will be up to employers to improve the offer.

‘We hope that employers will come to their senses in time so that we don’t have to resort to a strike.

‘NUMSA remains committed to negotiating the best agreement for our members and their families. The only way to undo the great crime of Apartheid is to pay workers a living wage and to improve working conditions. We will not accept anything less.

‘Aluta continua!’ The struggle continues!