'Skint' employers can't afford union demands

The metal and engineering industry can’t afford the wage increases unionists want, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa) said on Tuesday.

“The trade unions are demanding wage increases ranging from between 10% to 13% .. and a variety of amendments to current employment conditions—all of a nature unaffordable by the Seifsa membership,” said executive director David Carson.

The Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu), the Metal and Electrical Workers’ Union (Mewusa), and the United Association of SA were on strike on Tuesday. Solidarity was still polling its members on whether to keep pushing for the 10% it was demanding, or drop to a single digit demand.

Employers have offered 7%.

A spokesperson for the Metal and Electrical Workers’ Union was not immediately able to say what their position was.

Metalworkers’ union Numsa, the largest in the industry, held a march in Johannesburg on Monday, followed by another in Welkom in the Free State on Tuesday.

Ceppwawu then announced it was also on strike.

Carson said participation in the strike ranged from a total stayaway at some companies, to smaller companies reporting full attendance.
Federation members were worried about reports of violence and intimidation, ranging from workers being prevented from getting onto factory premises to the stoning of property and the blockading of entrances, despite an agreement on picketing rules in place.

There had been eight formal negotiating sessions under the auspices of the metal and engineering industries bargaining council since May for 9 000 companies employing over 348 000 workers. A dispute was declared in June. A committee appointed to explore different options had not been able to get an agreement.

Seifsa said it was focusing on problems including the “devastating effects” of the global recession on its members, escalating domestic input costs, high employment costs, limited available capital, a weak skills base, unreliable and expensive logistics and the high price of power. Import substitution had become “commonplace” and retrenchments had increased sharply since February.

“The industry is losing jobs and factories to international competitors and is facing a struggle for survival,” Carson said.

The entry level wage rate in the metal industry is “with very few exceptions” among the highest of all sectors in centralised collective bargaining.

Carson said there were 399 000 jobs in the industry in 2009. A year later 78 000 jobs were lost because of the recession. Only 27 000 of these workers were rehired.

“In the view of the Seifsa membership, the current unaffordable wage increase demands should be put aside and the focus of the employer and trade union parties should be on how best to secure the return of these 51 000 former employees to the workplace.”—Sapa

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