Solidarity boss slams public perception that Eskom employees are overpaid
The skilled workers’ union says without them, things would be worse at the power utility.
As wage talks between Eskom and a trio of unions drag on, there is a dearth of public sympathy for the utility. Everyone hates Eskom because of the misery its failures have inflicted on the economy and everyday life.
There is also a perception that its employees are overpaid and that their demands are unreasonable at a time of widespread hardship and a cost-of-living crisis. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has revised its demands down to 12% from 15%, whereas the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is sticking to 15%.
Meanwhile, Solidarity, which represents mostly skilled workers, is seeking CPI — currently 7.1% — plus 3%. That was its original demand but it has watered down what it has been seeking with regard to some benefits. That was the state of play after the second round of wage talks ended on 10 May, with Eskom unmoved from its original offer of a 3.75% pay hike.
Given Eskom’s shaky finances and a dreadful business model, the union demands have struck more than one commentator as unreasonable.
But Gideon du Plessis, Solidarity’s general secretary, told Daily Maverick that public perceptions are distorted and that Eskom needs to pay competitive wages to stem the drainage of skilled staff — a state of affairs that is contributing in no small measure to the utility’s shoddy performance.
“Speaking on behalf of Solidarity, I can say that there has been an exodus of skilled workers because of the difficult circumstances they work under, the substandard equipment they need to work with to go and fix power stations, and the pressure that they work under,” Du Plessis said.
“For us, the argument here is that, in order to retain your skilled workers, the only way to do that is to motivate them because the work situation is not going to change. So you must pay them a proper salary in order to retain them,” he said.
Evaporation of skills
Du Plessis did not have figures for the brain drain, but alarm bells have long been ringing about the evaporation of skills at state-owned entities — and across South Africa’s economy more widely.
“We are also faced with a situation where we know [the energy regulator] Nersa awarded 6% out of the 18.75% increase for Eskom; that 6% is for wage increases,” he said.
That is a reference to the tariff increase that Nersa allowed Eskom to impose on its customers this financial year.
“Now they offer 3.75%, whilst we know that they got 6%, but now they say they cannot give the full 6% because they need to pay for diesel and they need to appoint more people because there’s a shortage of staff,” Du Plessis said.
The wage talks got off to a bad start, with the unions accusing management of arrogance and unprofessionalism. This included Eskom making its initial offer last month without providing a detailed financial presentation to explain the reasoning behind it.
Against this backdrop is the public perception that, as bad as Eskom’s management is, an overpaid workforce is trying to draw blood from a stone.
“The narrative that the workers are overpaid is something that demotivates workers even more,” Du Plessis said. “Our guys get insulted in public because they work for Eskom.”
In response to a Numsa request for information, seen by Daily Maverick, Eskom said the “total employee benefit cost” for the more than 27,000 members of the bargaining unit was R17,561,914,171 for the full year 2022/23. Meanwhile, the number of managers was put at 6,457 — about one manager per four non-managers. Looking at the numbers outlined in a separate financial presentation Eskom gave to the unions, that means another R15.8-billion in salaries and other benefits is paid to management.
That equates to about R64,000 per month on average for employees in the bargaining unit but it includes all benefits — not just the basic salary — including overtime, which is 9% of such costs. For managers, the average monthly total is almost R245,000.
But both figures conceal wide pay disparities within the bargaining unit and management ranks.
Solidarity’s members at Eskom include engineers, electricians and technicians. Among their ranks are the employees who monitor the precarious balance between what Eskom can supply and the current state of electricity demand.
This means they are the last line of defence between rotational power cuts and a complete collapse of the grid and a national blackout.
“They need to make the right calls at the right time in the control room to prevent the blackout,” Du Plessis said.
The job requires highly skilled and motivated operators. As with air traffic controllers, there is no margin for error. It’s a job that doesn’t allow for long liquid lunches.
Du Plessis said the skilled workers who were parting ways with Eskom were taking jobs in the private sector in South Africa or were emigrating to other countries where their relatively scarce skills were in demand.
Meanwhile, the talks are set to resume from 23 to 25 May, and they seem headed for a dispute that will lead to arbitration.
“And we are now at the point where we are headed for a dispute but have not really started the negotiation,” Du Plessis said. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.