South Africa

#Rhodes Must Fall’s busy week, Instalment Two: Marching against outsourcing

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 6 October 2015

Last week, when the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, in solidarity with a number of other groups, disrupted an event at which economist Thomas Piketty was to give an address, the movement promised that chaos would be forthcoming if their demands regarding the conditions for workers at universities were not met. On Tuesday 6 October, they marched as promised on campuses across the country. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

“Decolonisation, not transformation!”

“Down with white power!” “Down with outsourcing!”

These were the rallying cries heard at Rhodes Must Fall’s (RMF’s) protest against outsourcing at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Tuesday. “Rule #6: Our parents don’t eat,” read one placard.

The march was endorsed by a number of groups (big and small) including the UCT National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) Joint Shop Stewards’ Council, the UCT Workers Forum, and the UCT Workers’ Solidarity Committee, and was intended as part of a series of actions against outsourcing of labour at universities.

Parallel protests were also held at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg.

Prior to the protest, RMF had warned that 6 October would mark the beginning of decisive action against outsourcing in universities. “Oct6 [sic] is clear: all university workers must be insourced,” they said in a statement. “Oct6 is the beginning of a long campaign across South African universities, a campaign that puts forward keys demands for a decolonised public African university. Oct6 is the inauguration of an effort to unite workers, students and academics on all campuses to create principled and progressive universities that stand for principled and progressive change in the society in which they work. The campaign begins with one of the most important issues on campuses: the mistreatment of workers.”

After the protest, they renewed their commitment to continuing action, writing on their Facebook page: “Thank you to all who joined us on this revolutionary day. Now let us prepare for the mother of all protests in post-apartheid, apartheid South Africa.”

During a press conference at the start of the march in Cape Town, Monica Gqoji, secretary of the UCT Joint Shop Stewards, called the current salary package of UCT’s cleaners and other outsourced workers “poverty wages”.

“UCT is renowned for innovation and forward thinking but when it comes to fair labour practices, the conduct of private companies and workers’ rights in private companies, the university is very much in the Stone Age,” she said.

She added that it was inconsistent to host events discussing inequality when there were significant inequalities between management and workers. (“Hypocrisy!” a protester standing behind this reporter yelled at this point.)

“At the university now since 1994 … the rich are getting richer and the working poor are being exploited with contracts that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,” Gqoji said. She added that UCT should live up to its record of contributing to the fight for equality in South Africa. There was “lots of money” for new buildings and research, but not for a fair wage, she added. “This university is more concerned with its ratings and reputation than the lives of its workers.”

Protesters took particular issue with the wage gap between contract or outsourced workers, who receive small salaries and few benefits, versus the earnings of vice-chancellors, who in some cases earn almost as much as – or even more than – the president. (This feature cites a study that calculated the average South African vice-chancellor’s salary to be R2.6-million per annum. South African academics have also previously been named as being among the world’s most highly paid.)

RMF and the associated organisations are demanding an end to outsourcing, an improved benefits package, and a basic salary of at least R10,000 per month for currently outsourced workers.

Following the press conference, protesters marched through the middle campus and the upper campus carrying their (by now signature) white crosses and eventually occupied Jameson Hall, which they have informally renamed Marikana Hall. There, they screened their documentary Outsourcing, which at the time of writing they promised would soon be available on YouTube. The mood among marchers was jovial, even festive.

The reaction from the actual workers represented by the protesters, however, was mixed. One cleaner, standing at the door of a building on the north side of the campus, came running out when she saw the marchers approaching. She immediately dropped her broom and began dancing. “Amandla!” she shouted.

Others were more reserved. Only a handful stood in the doorways, and they watched in silence. Daily Maverick spoke to some of them.

Many immediately declined to comment when informed that they were speaking to a reporter, even when assured that they would not be named. However, a few gave some general background on condition of anonymity. Asked whether they thought the march was a good or a bad thing, most expressed ambivalence. Outsourcing was a bad thing – this was stated unanimously. Insourcing had to come back. They could not survive on their existing salary package. Outsourcing was just “’n verneukery” [cheating], one said bluntly.

The protesting, however, might lead to further trouble for the workers, some said. They did not know what the outcome might be if there was a perception that workers were making trouble or endorsing protest action.

Who, then, should represent you? Daily Maverick asked. Nehawu, said one, waving her hand in the general direction of the protesters. They are supposed to represent us. Maar hulle doen ook niks vir ons nie. [They do nothing for us.]

Another said she did not know what was happening and was simply having a cigarette break. But, when told it was a protest to end outsourcing, she seemed pleased. Oh, that’s a good thing then, she said.

A third was worried about where all the protest action might lead, but was adamant that outsourcing had had a negative impact on her financial security. She had been at the university for over a decade, she said, and took home a net salary of R4,800 at the end of the month, with which she had to support four children. “Is that money?” she asked. She had already spent R1,000 on groceries for the month for her children and that did not include meat or bread. The pay package included a provident fund and Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions but her provident fund was not sufficient to support her upon retirement.

She also noted that there were fewer cleaners per building since outsourcing was implemented, which had increased the workload of the cleaners.

“It is like the apartheid times now,” one cleaner said.

During the protest, RMF speakers had said outsourced staff earned nothing during university holidays. Daily Maverick asked workers if this was true. A cleaner clarified that workers could earn money during the holidays, but since the default was to take days off during this time, one had to put in overtime in order to do so.

RMF had originally chosen 6 October as the date for their protest because of an alleged deadline for the resolution of a dispute between Nehawu and UCT regarding conditions for workers. At the time, RMF threatened that chaos would be forthcoming if the outcome was not favourable in their view.

“The #RhodesMustFall movement now asks the question, ‘What does it mean when UCT excludes the most marginalised members of its community from conversations that directly affect their lives?’ Through these considerations the #RhodesMustFall movement, along with the UCT Left Students Forum, took this opportunity to pressurise the university into providing the material substance and political will required to improve this deeply unjust landscape in which the ivory tower of UCT finds itself. This is especially the case as UCT is presently in an active dispute with the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union over demands that seek to tangibly change the living conditions of workers at the institution. The decision of the university regarding the dispute will be released by the university council on 5 October 2015,” RMF told Daily Maverick last week.

UCT spokesperson Patricia Lucas, however, said that 5 October was a fabricated deadline and that negotiations were ongoing. “The deadline mentioned in the RMF statement of 5 October 2015 for resolving the dispute with Nehawu was not agreed with UCT,” she said. “The university is currently in discussions with Nehawu and we are consulting with external advisers on the matter.”

Lucas also said that meeting the salary demands of RMF and the other protesters would cost the university so much that fees would increase, which would exacerbate financial exclusion. A 2014 review of outsourcing estimated that the additional costs of insourcing all services would be R58-million per year, with additional upfront costs of R68-million.

“The university will not be able to absorb this cost without raising student tuition fees significantly and this would impair student access to UCT,” she added.

Outsourcing was the most efficient, cost-effective option for the university, she told Daily Maverick.

“The University of Cape Town notes the demands by members of Rhodes Must Fall, the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union and other movements to abolish outsourcing of essential services at the university,” she said.

“The report confirm[ed] the value of the code of conduct that UCT incorporates into its outsourcing agreements, and encourages a strengthening of this code to ensure that outsourced workers at UCT ‘have (a) voice in the form of structured representation within the workplace’. One response by the university to this recommendation is the establishment of the position of a code of conduct compliance officer to work closely with outsourced companies on behalf of the workers.

“The broad areas covered in the code of conduct include freedom of association and collective bargaining, working conditions, the minimum wage and other conditions such as working hours, overtime, night shift allowance and payment while on maternity leave,” Lucas said.

Lucas confirmed that the UCT minimum wage for outsourced workers was R5,018 per month gross, but added that this was 66% higher than the Sectoral Determination hourly rate of R16.98.

She also said UCT had extended its ‘workers’ benefit’ to include outsourced workers. “The benefit provides reduced tuition rates for outsourced workers and their legally determined dependents,” she said.

Regarding allegations that workers were victimised or intimidated, Lucas said the university agreed in 2014 to establish an independent arbitration process to resolve disputes with outsourced service providers and their employees. Where Nehawu called for a halt to the transfer of workers from one contract to another, she said this clause had been included in UCT’s outsourcing contracts to allow the same workers to continue in their jobs at the university even when the outsourcing contract changed from one company to another.

“This ensures workers can keep their jobs even if a contract is discontinued,” she said. DM

Photo of Tuesday’s march at UCT by Marelise vd Merwe.

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