Opinionista Vuyolwethu Toli 1 June 2017

Class exploitation, racial oppression are the dominant systems sustaining UCKAR

To flush out the University Currently Known as Rhodes’ brutal system of worker exploitation, united revolutionary action by workers and students is required.

In the last two years we have seen movements like #OutsourcingMustFall growing, across South African universities, in response to the negative effects of labour broking and outsourcing. At the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR), protests against institutional racism, fees, and sexual assault excluded a demand for insourcing as it was believed most workers at UCKAR were insourced.

Last month the institution held a graduation ceremony, where dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was celebrated as an honorary graduate. His poem Di Great Insohreckshan, about Brixton’s 1981 riots, celebrated black insurrection against police brutality. It is ironic that an institution like UCKAR was giving out this award, when it is notorious for using the police to consistently repress peaceful black dissent and protest.

During the ceremony, the Vice Chancellor took the opportunity to criticise the government for greed and corruption. And yet, these ethical commitments were absent from his remarks about UCKAR. While acknowledging the role of cooking, gardening and cleaning workers, he remained silent on the workers who were protesting outside the graduation ceremony, against the subhuman working conditions.

Last month workers demanding a living wage staged pickets and went on a go-slow. The protesters demanded a mere 6.9% wage increase. Workers also demanded an increase in the housing and transportation allowances and for the grading system to be changed. UCKAR uses a grading system for workers. The majority who are African fall into Grades 1-3 for unskilled workers, and are therefore relegated to performing the most menial of tasks. The response of the management was to criminalise the protests.

In 2015, black students making rational arguments about UCKAR’s entrenched racism were vilified. This year’s strike saw another senior manager publicly describe workers industrial action as “illegal”. UCKAR abuses the Constitution to justify its authoritarian responses to protesting black students and workers. The Constitution recognises unprotected strikes and there are no illegal strikes. By describing unprotected strikes as illegal, UCKAR is engaging in typical colonial practices where the strike and participating workers are criminalised.

Workers go on strike because they are the working poor. Class exploitation and racial oppression are the dominant systems sustaining UCKAR, whose wage system perfectly reflects racial and class domination and exploitation, respectively.

UCKAR traps workers in poverty wages. They are struggling to survive on R6,000-R7,000. One worker lamented the low salary.

I have been working here for 11 years but I do not have a house, neither do I own a car. I am responsible for paying the school fees for my children. The cent you earn from this institution only covers things such as debt and clothing.”

Workers’ demands for wage increases are justified. The Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (PACSA) has shown that working-class households with a R6,000 income have an average monthly debit of R542.02. According to this study, a living wage is estimated at around R8,000. After covering basic expenses, this is reduced to R1,457.98.

Apartheid labour relations at UCKAR are not confined to poverty wages. The university practises casualisation and outsourcing while pretending to be “outsourcing free”. Most of its security staff are outsourced to Hi-Tech, a local security company.

For Grades 1-3 workers, this experience of impoverishment is worsened by time deprivation. Workers in housekeeping at UCKAR’s residences are worse off. “When I was working at central cleaning, I was not working on weekends so it was possible on Fridays to do your laundry and on Saturdays to attend funerals. But here you’re only off after 12 days work. You work the entire week and even weekends,” said a worker.

Rubbing salt into an open wound, UCKAR management keeps workers trapped at Grade 1, UCKAR’s lowest occupational ranking. Management has consistently ignored calls by students and workers who, for the last two years, have demanded that Grades 1-3 be abolished, and for entry-level workers to start at Grade 4.

UCKAR hypocrisy is further displayed in their vision and mission statement. It claims commitment to basic human and civil rights, and pretends to be sensitive to inequalities produced by the past. When workers are acknowledged for their role at UCKAR – as in the recent graduation – it is decorative, without any concrete action to transform the bitter reality of their impoverishment.

In 2014, the university Office of Equity and Institutional Culture conducted a survey to solicit views of the service staff and academics on transformation. The findings of this report have never been publicly revealed and are gathering dust in management’s office.

To flush out UCKAR’s brutal system of worker exploitation, united revolutionary action by workers and students is required. The university will continue to ignore workers’ demands for social justice and a living wage. Protest action by workers is important as this can give birth to a just institution free from colonial and neoliberal labour pratices. However, only persistent and consistent workers’ protest action will result in the end of the exploitative and oppressive conditions at UCKAR. DM

Vuyolwethu Toli is a recent Masters graduate whose thesis is on “Lived experience of positional suffering for room attendants at Rhodes University”. Toli was part of the #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall movements there. He is also associated with the Movement for Socialism and the Numsa Research Institute (NURPI).

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