Call to arms for ‘a living wage’

The petroleum, chemical and mining industries — key sectors in the economy — are bracing themselves for rolling mass action starting next week. The metal and engineering industry strike is also still firmly under way.

On Thursday, Cosatu’s chemical and energy union, Ceppawu, and the General Industries Workers’ Union said more than 70 000 of their members in the petroleum, pharmaceuticals, glass, industrial chemicals and tissue industries would down tools to demand better salaries.

The strike is likely to have a negative impact on the country’s economy, as petrol supply countrywide is expected to be affected.

The unions want a salary increase of more than 10% and a minimum wage of R6 000. They are also demanding the introduction of one bargaining council in the industry, which currently has five. Employers are offering an increase of between 6% and 7%.

The chemical industry strike comes a week after more than 170 000 metal and engineering workers embarked on an indefinite strike, which started on Monday. The strike by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has been marred by widespread reports of intimidation and violence, particularly in the Western Cape and Gauteng. But Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim has accused police of using excessive force when dealing with striking workers.

“The usage of state apparatus, particularly police, through excessive force and cowardly arrests, to silence popular dissent and brutalise workers is reminiscent of the old apartheid police-style tactics to stagnate popular class struggles geared towards challenging the hegemony of the ruling class,” said Jim.

Numsa is demanding a 13% wage increase; employers are offering 7%. The high salary demands, particularly by Cosatu-affiliated unions, are in line with the federation’s central committee resolution taken last week to intensify its “living wage” campaign.

According to a Cosatu booklet, a living wage is enough to cover a certain quality and quantity of housing, food, utilities, transport, healthcare and recreation. The federation believes its campaign would significantly reduce the salary gap between the poor and the rich.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini told delegates at Cosatu’s central committee meeting last week that workers should not be afraid to push for higher salaries.

“The 2010 United Nations Development Programme report shows that 44% of workers in South Africa live on less than R10 a day, which is almost the same as the daily allowance on child-support grants. But this amount can barely pay for a dry loaf of brown bread, which cost R7.50 in 2010. In practical terms this means that 44% of workers in South Africa are working for a loaf of bread a day.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that we move faster to find solutions to the problems engulfing our country because it is under conditions of abject poverty, unemployment and inequality that breeds open confrontation between the people and those holding political power,” Dlamini said.

The National Union of Mine­workers (NUM), warned the gold-mining industry that its 140 000 members might strike if employers fail to up their offer of 5%. NUM is demanding a 14% wage increase.

Lesiba Seshoka, the NUM spokesperson, said the Chamber of Mines, which represented Anglogold Ashanti, Harmony Gold and Goldfield, was prepared to increase its wage offer by a mere “0.5% and 1% respectively for higher and lower categories”. NUM general secretary Frans Baleni said after the two parties deadlocked on Tuesday: “We are now ready for action.”

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