As workers prepare to face off with power utility Eskom, threatening strike action in the coming week, recent employment figures reveal that employees in the electricity sector are among the highest-paid workers in formal industry.
Negotiations between Eskom and the three unions that represent its employees ground to a halt this week and two of the unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), are set to go on strike.
The third union, Solidarity, said it would not pursue strike action but remained unwilling to accept Eskom’s offer of an 8,5% increase, a 5,6% increase in specified allowances and a R1 000 top-up housing allowance.
But quarterly employment statistics for the first quarter of the year released last week showed that workers in the electricity, gas and water sector received an average salary of R23 029 a month. This is far above the average R11 195 paid to workers in the rest of the formal sector.
Numsa’s initial demands included an across-the-board increase of 20%. It also demanded an increase of “family responsibility” or “contingency” leave from 14 to 20 days a year, a decrease in retirement age from 65 to 60 years, an increase of fully paid maternity leave from four months to six months, the scrapping of labour brokers and a guaranteed minimum wage for all workers at the company of R5 000.
Numsa spokesperson Castro Ngobese denied that the union’s demands on Eskom were exorbitant.
The union was prepared to settle for 9% and a R2 500 housing allowance but Eskom had rejected some of its other requests, including those concerning labour brokers and maternity leave, he said. The union had also determined that the lowest-paid worker in Eskom earned R6 500 so the company already met Numsa’s minimum-wage target. He said that the issue of retirement age had not come to the table.
“Our demands are not high; they are reasonable and affordable given that Eskom posted a R3,6-billion profit this year,” said Ngobese. Wage demands should be seen in the context of Eskom’s R12-million splurge on tickets to World Cup matches for senior employees. He also said that Eskom was preparing to pay out R2,9-million in bonuses to its top five executives whereas workers are simply asking for “a living wage”.
Unions have also been blamed for extending negotiations because of their steep demands. But Solidarity spokesperson Jaco Kleinhans told the Mail & Guardian that unions had attempted to begin negotiations in April, hoping to complete them before the World Cup. But because Eskom failed to meet the unions, negotiations began only in May.
Eskom did not reply to the M&G‘s requests for comment. But in a statement this week the utility pleaded with unions to continue negotiations and said it would continue to pursue arbitration. It emphasised that, because Eskom is deemed an essential service, strike action would be illegal.
Ngobese said Numsa did not accept this interpretation and had assembled a team of legal experts to advise the union on the strike. “We want to ensure workers are legally protected during this strike,” he said.