Transport workers' wage negotiations have collapsed, leading to a vow of indefinite strike action by unions and raising concerns about fuel supply.
"The talks reached a point where we could not go further and we will embark on an indefinite strike," spokesperson for South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu) Vincent Masoga said on Tuesday night.
The deadlock closed the latest negotiations between transport workers' unions and employers' body the Road and Freight Association, which began on Tuesday afternoon at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration,
Masoga said discussions ended with unions demanding a 12% wage increase to be implemented over 2013 and 2014 and the freight association refusing to budge from its offer of 7.5%.
Wage negotiations began in June at the National Bargaining Council for the road freight and logistics industry and continued until September 4 when unions declared an official deadlock. Following a series of discussions, the latest of which took place on September 22, Satawu declared transport workers would commence with strike action.
The industrial action began in earnest on Tuesday with gatherings of transport workers at Beyers Naude Square in the Johannesburg city centre. Over 20 000 unionised transport workers were expected to join the strike, represented by Satawu, the Transport and Allied Workers' Union, the Professional Transport and Allied Workers' Union of South Africa and the Motor Transport Workers' Union.
Earlier on Tuesday Magretia Brown-Engelbrecht, the freight association's labour relations manager, said unions wanted a 9% wage increase, while the association's last official offer stood at 7%.
But Masoga insisted on a 12% increase. He said 9% was an offer previously taken to union members by union negotiators but rejected. The reason for the rejection was that the 9% was to be implemented in steps of 0.5% starting from 7%, with the full 9% increase only realised in September 2013.
The date for further discussion has not yet been determined. In the meantime inoperative trucks spell bad news for freight transport from the coast to inland regions, particularly for petroleum. The South African Petroleum Industry Association on Tuesday recognised the threat to fuel supply.
"While some [association] members own fleets of road tankers, others outsource most of the road transport activities to independent owner operators. The majority of independent owner operators belong to the Road Freight Employers' Association, whose drivers are now embarking on strike action," said the association's executive director of Avhapfani Tshifularo in a public statement.
Tshifularo said there was no reason for panic as "members have contingency plans in place to minimise supply disruption to their retail service stations". But with the details of these contingency plans deemed confidential, their efficacy remains to be seen.