A group of street cleaners in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, have been on strike for at least two weeks. But on Monday, as they gathered to picket in Oosthuizen Park, they were allegedly attacked by their employers, a company contracted by the Ekurhuleni municipality. Wielding “sjamboks” – thick leather whips – a group of men perched on the back of a bakkie are said to have chased after workers and then assaulted them.
Three workers, Phakama Cokoto, Phamile Cokoto and Collins Rikhotso, sustained injuries. As the group of striking workers dispersed out of reach of the men on the bakkie, the assailants are then alleged to have gone to the offices of the Casual Workers Advice Office in Germiston where they demanded to be informed of the whereabouts of the striking workers. When that information was not forthcoming, the assailants then allegedly threatened to destroy the property, going on to lash out a volunteer at the Advice Office.
Thabang Mohlala, the injured volunteer, was treated at a Germiston hospital late on Monday while his assailants, alleged to be the two people who own Mvume Investments (the company hiring the workers) were arrested by local police.
Sadly, this incident only serves to highlight the fragility of industrial relations in post-Marikana South Africa. Distrust of the police is growing alongside pockets of resistance from workers who feel isolated from the centre of power in the unions that are meant to represent them. Cosatu and its individual affiliates are suffering from a growing perception that trade unions in South Africa have become institutions of social control, with little left of their original roots as radical challengers to social inequality and exploitation.
Ighsaan Schroeder, Coordinator of the Casual Workers Advice Office in Germiston, believes such weaknesses are once more apparent in the Germiston street cleaners strike. “The union has turned its back on the workers,” he says.
Tahir Sema, spokesperson for the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) says the Cosatu-affiliated union, to which the street cleaners belong, was aware of the strike, but rejected allegations that the union had abandoned workers. He claims the strike is illegal and unprotected and workers have resisted SAMWU’s attempts at intervention.
Schroeder denies SAMWU’s assessment of the strike as an illegal and unprotected one. “The dispute was referred to the [Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration], workers gave 48 hours’ notice before striking, all in compliance with the Labour Relations Act,” he said. He believes that an interim order won by workers in the labour court that allows them the right to picket in Oosthuizen Park is further proof that the strike is not illegal. They would not win such an order if the strike was unprotected,” he said.
While the legality of the strike may still be contended, the issues that have driven workers to picket, protest and throw rubble in the streets are also some way from resolution. Workers here are striking against the labour broking, casual labour, sub-contracting system. They feel their colleagues who are employed directly by the municipality enjoy higher salaries and several other benefits. They claim they have been laid entirely at the mercy of their direct employers, who attach them to a performance-based salary, frequently deducting pay if the streets are deemed to be insufficiently clean. Workers want to be relieved of the agency of the subcontractor and be employed directly by the municipality instead.
Sema says SAMWU has received an undertaking from the South African Local Government Association to desist in local government’s use of labour brokers and sub-contractors. While the agreement still stands, various municipalities are still being held to contracts they had previously signed – as in the case in Germiston. Sema is confident that municipalities will all eventually revert to hiring municipal workers directly.
“We did explain to workers, but it’s almost as though these workers were too impatient with the process,” he says.
Sema claims the good relationship between the Ekurhuleni municipality and SAMWU may have assisted in speeding up the process, but the strike has now damaged the relationship and therefore such possibilities. “The union advised alternate forms of engagement,” Sema says.
The discrepancies between SAMWU and workers in Germiston about what exactly the union has offered in resolving the strike reflects the difficulties experienced by unions in contexts where the workforce is largely derived from labour broking.
Recent years have seen an upsurge in municipalities outsourcing jobs they would traditionally have done within the municipalities, using sub-contracts or labour broking.
“Workers fall through the cracks in terms of the law because the primary relationship isn’t with the municipality but with a broker or sub-contractor. In terms of the law they are not seen as an employee and they are often just temporary or casual labour.
“This is very much linked to Coastu’s whole campaign to ban brokers, because it is very difficult to ultimately find out who is responsible for that labour.
“Some unions have tried to organise casual and brokered workers but I have to say it’s a very difficult task, because they earn so little and because they have no formal employment contract, they just move from one place to another, trying to get better wages,” Kally Forrest, a researcher at the Society of Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, explains.
She adds, “In the last year, government partially responding to Cosatu’s demands brought three amendments to the Labour Relations Act and one bill, all of which are trying to deal with this problem of the relationship of casual labourers with their employers, trying to define who exactly is responsible for workers. That change to the law states that the primary relationship of workers is to the person you’re doing work for. So even if brokers are providing you to municipalities, the municipality is responsible for your wage rate, for your health and safety, for benefits and so on. Crucially, however, the law has not been passed yet.”
“The union will try to intervene and is willing to assist workers, but SAMWU feels workers must be responsible and first exhaust all bargaining and negotiating options before embarking on such a strike,” Sema adds.
Workers, however, feel that the union’s attempts at intervention have been insufficient and they have been abandoned to the whim of their employers – employers who will resort to anything, including threats and violence, to ensure they return to work. DM
Photo caption: A worker in Marikana makes clear his attitude towards the labour broking and system. Casual labour and labour broking have not assisted the efforts of trade unions to organise the workforce in mining as in local government.
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