Long after the police clamped down on an unprotected strike by Pikitup workers, trash continued to pile in the streets on Thursday. But almost two weeks after the strike began, workers and the refuse-removal company were able to come to an agreement and most employees will return to work on Friday. By GREG NICOLSON.
The South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) announced on Thursday that an intervention from Gauteng Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC, Jacob Mamabolo, led to an agreement with the City of Johannesburg, which owns Pikitup, to end the strike. It has seen police and workers clash outside the refuse-removal company’s offices in Braamfontein, and trash has been piling up on streets across the city.
The signed agreement led Mamabolo on Thursday appointing a senior counsel to facilitate further engagements. The majority of Pikitup’s 5,200 employees joined the unprotected strike, which started last week, with Samwu demanding salary increases, investigations into alleged salary disparities, giving casual workers on three month contracts, full-time employment, and for the removal of managing director Amanda Nair.
“We trust that this process which we have agreed to will assist us in resolving issues which led to us going to strike,” said Samwu Deputy Secretary General, Simon Mathe, in a statement. “We remain convinced that our demands leading to the protest action are genuine, and as mandated by our members we will allow this process to unfold. We therefore urge all workers at Pikitup to return to work, and allow this process to be fully exhausted.”
Mathe later said the union was “very, very satisfied” that salaries, which are allegedly unequal, will be benchmarked, and changes implemented in February. While the union has alleged Nair has done nothing for workers, victimises them and is stealing equipment belonging to the City of Johannesburg, Mathe said there would be a process of relationship building. He said 90% of the workforce will return on Friday.
Acknowledging the role of MEC Mamabolo, Mathe was confident all parties will stick to the agreement and process going forward. Workers were not paid during the strike and the union is looking into mitigating the lack of pay, through options such as forgoing leave days.
“Pikitup will now intensify its recovery plan and continue to deal with the backlog,” said a statement from Pikitup on Thursday. It advised residents who cannot wait for their normal collection cycle to drop off their waste at landfill or garden refuse sites. On Wednesday, while Samwu was threatening to intensify the strike, Pikitup said some bins were still being collected.
During the strike, Pikitup said it could not negotiate with the union while workers were on an “illegal” work-stoppage. “Our view is that if we [Pikitup and the City] continue engaging based on an illegitimate platform we will be setting a wrong precedent,” it said last week. “The management team of Pikitup and shareholder commits that once workers go back to work, and Samwu calls off the illegal work stoppage, we will expeditiously address the issues to resolve them in the best interest of all the affected parties.” Early on in the strike, the City condemned workers for trashing the streets. The government has been under increased pressure to intervene. Despite attempts to find alternative options, in much of the city, particularly in the Johannesburg CBD, trash littered the streets. This week, members of the Red Ants were shot at while they were trying to clear the rubbish, and strikers reportedly stopped and unloaded a rubbish truck called in to help.
“As long as an entire city’s rubbish remains uncollected, the associated health risks increase and will become a burden on the city and its economy as people become ill and invasive pests flourish,” Democratic Alliance Johannesburg leader, Vasco da Gama, said on Wednesday in a statement. He criticised Mayor Parks Tau’s picking up rubbish as a publicity stunt, and called on the mayor to promote negotiations.
One report noted the opportunities the strike has created for recycling companies, but many others featured images of rubbish-covered streets and warnings of health risks. “It’s sick. You can just smell the rot coming from outside. It’s on my doorstep and there is nothing I can do about it,” News24 quoted Braamfontein small food market owner, Mrs Habib. She and other restaurateurs have bought rat poison, fearing an infestation, and said their businesses were suffering.
On social media, people have been asking who will pick up the trash accumulated throughout the strike and thrown in the streets by the workers. It seems clear that the same workers will have to pick it up, but through the pressure they were able to create on the government, they also managed to secure an agreement with officials, who initially seemed reluctant to engage on their demands, that might lead to better pay and working conditions. DM
Photo: Pikitup workers have been striking in Johannesburg CBD this week emptying trash in the streets and not collecting refuse in Johannesburg. Picture: Tara Meaney/EWN.