Transnet strike halts rail and port operations

Thousands of South African transport workers joined a national strike on Wednesday, paralysing rail and port operations in Africa’s biggest economy.

The strike at state logistics group Transnet was the latest in a series of public protests in the country ahead of next month’s Soccer World Cup.

“Nothing is moving today [Wednesday],” George Strauss, president of one of the unions, the United Transport and Allied Trade Union (Utatu), told Reuters.

Transnet operates no passenger services, but commuter lines have been hit in provinces where the country’s passenger rail agency relies on Transnet staff for its operations.

The strike could affect coal and iron ore exports, fuel distribution and shipping in one of the world’s biggest coal exporters.

Two labour unions representing 85% of Transnet’s more than 50 000-strong workforce have rejected a wage increase offer of 11% and insist on a 15% rise — well above an inflation rate of 5,1%.

The other union, the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu), said workers would organise marches in Johannesburg, Durban and Polokwane from Wednesday.

Thirteen people were arrested in Durban after a protest turned violent on Monday.

Transnet did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Transnet, commodities and fuel producers have said they will be able to supply customers for days due to stocks at ports.

Coal producers said they may be forced to curtail production if the strike is prolonged and their depots at mines fill up.

“Once we become too full, we will have to start cutting back on production,” said Mxolisi Mgojo, head of the coal unit at diversified miner Exxaro. He said Exxaro would carry out some maintenance during the strike to minimise the impact.

No meeting scheduled
Coal traders said the impact on exports was likely to be minimal as stocks at the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) are likely to last for weeks. If the strike goes on longer, miners might need to use expensive trucks to transport their coal.

Kumba Iron Ore, a unit of Anglo American, said it was “severely impacted” by the strike, which has limited its ability to rail iron ore destined for exports to Saldanha Bay.

Fuel producers, including BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Engen and Chevron, have not yet been hit, but the South African Petroleum Industry Association said it was monitoring the situation closely as more impact was expected with the Utatu joining the labour action.

Other industries, including exporters of fresh fruit, said they were already feeling the pain.

Power utility Eskom said the strike would have no impact on the transport of coal used to power its plants, since only small amounts of coal were carried by rail, with the rest supplied by conveyor belts directly from mines.

The two unions said they had met with Transnet to revive talks but the company would not raise its offer.

“Management basically said ‘get lost’, so there is no meeting scheduled at the moment … we expect a complete shutdown,” said Jane Barrett, Satawu’s policy research officer. “We expect all union members plus others to come out.” — Reuters

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