Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi is calling for calm as workers affiliated with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) have embarked on a national indefinite strike following failed salary negotiations with major employer organisation in the engineering sector, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa).
The country’s largest union, which has about 432 000 members, and Seifsa, which represents 18 organisations that employ 170 000 workers, marched to the Metal and Engineering Industry Bargaining Council on Tuesday after a disputed three-year wage agreement ended in June.
The union handed over its memorandum to keep to its demand of an 8% increase across the board for the first year and a consumer price index (CPI) plus 2% increase for 2022 and 2023. Initially, Numsa had demanded a one-year 15% pay increase across the board, however this rate was revised down to 8% in August.
The protest follows the union’s rejection of Seifsa’s offer of a 4.4% increase in 2021 as well as inflation-related increases in the following two years.
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Added to its list of demands is the amending of benefits to include 10 days’ paternity leave, five days’ family responsibility leave, and a travel allowance of R1 000 a month across the board.
While Numsa and Seifsa are in deadlock over the matter, Nxesi urges both parties to resolve their industrial issues urgently through social dialogue, citing South Africa’s current critical period of massive unemployment and retrenchments.
“Our Constitution guarantees the right of association and the protection of worker rights and industrial action. We respect the fact that many people died for us to be able to enjoy these rights.
“But with the rights come the responsibilities and we would like to urge unions and other worker representatives to exercise this responsibility,” said Nxesi.
“It is common cause that the country is now going through one of the most difficult periods occasioned by the pandemic on one hand and the inclement economic conditions that prevailed even before Covid-19 on the other. It is against this background that we appeal to all the players – workers and employers, unions, federations and employer bodies – to handle the sensitive talks with the necessary caution,” he said.
Hostility won’t help economic recovery
Nxesi further appealed to all social partners entering the wage negotiations to work through the issues on the table, saying that hostility would not solve differences but instead risks escalating the severe economic and social damages that have been brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Cool heads should prevail and the good of the country and our economy should always [be] at the top of mind,” he said.
“After protracted industrial action, we still have to come and sit around the table to resolve our differences, but it is not wise or advisable to play a zero-sum game. We are all invested in this country.”
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Nxesi added that given the number of unemployed people in SA having increased by 584 000 to 7.8 million compared to the first quarter of 2021, it would be devastating if more people become unemployed when social dialogue would be more fruitful.
According to the wage negotiation update published on Seifsa’s website, the employer body recognises the right of workers to protest, however all absences from work as a consequence of participating in strike action will be treated on the no work, no pay basis.
“In the interim, Seifsa’s negotiating team will continue to keep all channels of communication open with all trade unions in an endeavour to mitigate the impact the strike and the lock-out will have on the industry,” the organisation added.
Palesa Mofokeng is a Moneyweb intern.