Defend Truth


Subcontracting at OR Tambo International: Precarious work and attacks on workers’ rights

Vuyolwethu Toli is a Researcher at the NUMSA Research and Policy Institute. He is also associated with Movement for Socialism in NUMSA.

Hard-won basic workers’ rights enshrined in the Labour Relations Act have been under severe attack and threat at OR Tambo International Airport through intimidation of workers who want to join NUMSA. The intimidation that security, cleaning, and other subcontracting staff face from management is an infraction of Section 23 of the Constitution.

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 and died on 24 April 1993. He was a non-racist South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991. He dedicated all his life to the struggle against all forms of oppression. He was then and now fondly called “OR Tambo”, or more lovingly, simply “OR”.

Jan Christiaan Smuts was born on 24 May 1870 and died on 11 September 1950. He was a prominent racist white South African and British Commonwealth politician. He served as prime minister of the white racist Union of South Africa from 1919 until 1924 and from 1939 until 1948. Although Smuts’ views moderated somewhat over time, he consistently advocated racial segregation and opposed the enfranchisement of black Africans. His name is usually abbreviated to Jan Smuts.

Jan Smuts Airport was founded in 1952, two years after the death of Jan Christiaan Smuts, the celebrated racist white politician. The democratically elected ANC government renamed it Johannesburg International Airport in 1994. On 27 October 2006, the airport was renamed after OR Tambo.

On 19 October this year, as if to announce to international arrivals that the country is free, a life-sized statue of OR Tambo was unveiled in the International arrivals hall. 

Sadly, OR International Airport is host to some of the most cruel and oppressive forms of employment for the thousands of mostly black and African workers who make this airport a thriving hive of human activity. 

With its annual passenger capacity sitting at 28-million, OR Tambo International Airport is the largest and busiest airport on the African continent. Subcontracting – as an offshoot of neoliberal capitalism – is a dominant form of employment at the airport. Many private cleaning and security companies get contracts from the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) to provide these services. Subcontracting as a way of organising labour is notorious for subjecting workers’ lives to precarious livelihoods, terrible working conditions, and minimal legislative protection all over the world. In South Africa, this is made worse by the pre-existing racist practices in many companies.

Part of the revolutionary tasks of trade unions in a capitalist society is to organise unorganised workers, some of whom are employed by subcontracting companies. Lenin, in his book What is to be done? (1902) noted the importance of having trade unions to represent workers interests:

“The economic struggle is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour power, for better living and working conditions. This struggle is necessarily a trade union struggle, because working conditions differ greatly in different trades, and consequently, the struggle to improve them can only be conducted on the basis of trade organisations.”

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has from 2013 extended its scope to include workers in aviation, cleaning and security companies and has started recruiting at OR Tambo. Through this recruitment campaign the brutality and suffering of workers has and continues to be exposed.

Hard-won basic worker rights enshrined in the Labour Relations Act have been under severe attacks and threats at OR Tambo through intimidation of workers who want to join NUMSA. The intimidation that security, cleaning, and other subcontracting staff face from management is an infraction of Section 23 of the Constitution. Section 23 states in subsection (2) “every worker has the right to form and join a trade union”. The Preamble of the newly formed South African Federation of Trade Union (SAFTU) clearly exposes these attacks on worker rights stating:

“Attacks on trade union and worker rights continue unabated, as efforts are made by the elite to undermine workers power, and create conditions for even greater exploitation.”

Management of subcontracting companies do not allow NUMSA to freely  organise workers into its union. This is done by imposing hurdles and barricades in NUMSA’s path. As a result, NUMSA is unable to access organisational and other guaranteed rights enshrined in the Labour Relations Act for a union which often will have gained majority membership in a company.

Labour law delinquency which exists in companies operating within the airport is not only limited to the question of organisational rights. The extreme hardships experienced by workers are fuelled by unfair labour practices which range from long periods of casualisation, other forms of temporary employment and arbitrary dismissals to suspensions for merely wanting to belong to a trade union. SAFTU diagnoses the neoliberal sickness in the South African economy, stating:

“The adoption of a neoliberal orthodoxy across the world is now almost complete, and is accompanied by measures to limit the statutory rights of workers and poor communities by diluting or overturning legislation that was intended to protect workers.”

All these efforts by subcontracting companies at OR Tambo are made to continue the languishing and slavery conditions workers are trapped into, bequeathed to neoliberalism in South Africa.

Some examples of the unparalleled sadistic treatment of workers include examples such as when turning 50 years of age as a business operation, one of the restaurants paraded workers as stooges by making them sing and dance for a senior management official. Meanwhile workers were not recognised for their hard work in any way and instead, one of the workers was actually suspended for merely asking for a better day’s pay.

True, subcontracting practices at airports are not unique to South Africa. In fact there is a resistance to subcontracting by airport workers globally. Subcontracted workers doing cabin cleaning, terminal security and baggage handling resisted against slavery conditions at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City in 2013. They demonstrated against being paid peanuts while the bosses benefited from large sums of money coming from an expansion of the airport’s Terminal 4. According to Airline Industry Information, “despite large public investments in JFK Airport, thousands of low-wage subcontracted service workers struggle to get by on wages as low as $8 per hour in one of the most expensive cities in the country”.

At the Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, subcontracted workers in 2013 embarked on a long strike action demanding an improvement in wages and their working conditions. Workers were also rising against extreme job insecurity and discrimination.

At Philadelphia International Airport in 2015, barbaric working conditions which come with subcontracting were also challenged by a group of subcontracted workers and their allies. Workers demonstrated against the airport and described it as a “house of horrors” for the misery it has condemned their lives to.

What makes the South African situation particularly painful and unique, however, are the pre-existing racist and colonial wages the majority of black and African workers are subjected to. It is these conditions which make the statue of OR Tambo at the airport a mockery of these giants of our struggle.

Labour law victories obtained in the early 1990s in South Africa through the sweat, blood and tears of the working class are under severe attack by subcontracting companies, not only at OR Tambo, but across all airports and other workplaces  nationally.

The fight to end casualisation and temporary employment for the working class resulted in victories in 2014 through the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Act, the Labour Relations Amendment Act and more. However, these gains are being reversed in security, cleaning, restaurants, and a host of other subcontracting companies at OR Tambo.

The Department of Labour is proving to be toothless against companies that violate laws that protect workers rights. Inspiration must be drawn from workers who have resisted and waged struggles against these airport conditions internationally. There is no substitute to the organised power of the workers in their trade unions to fight to end the scourge of subcontracting and its evil labour practices. No amount of intimidation and dismissals from employment should be allowed to stand in the way of the struggle for organising the working class into trade unions and victory over subcontracting and its inhuman practices.

The working class must draw inspiration from OR Tambo who, up to his death, remained a revolutionary fighter against all injustices. DM


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