/ 12 October 2012

Nation under pressure as truck strike builds

Truck drivers doing their jobs face the risk of violence from striking colleagues.
Truck drivers doing their jobs face the risk of violence from striking colleagues.

The import industry has been most affected because non-perishable goods are stuck at the harbour. The absence of foodstuffs has resulted in empty shelves at supermarkets across South Africa, but in other key economic sectors consumers have not yet felt a dramatic effect.

Delays and the non-delivery of fuel have caused some service stations in small towns to run dry, but the South African Petroleum Industry Association's contingency plans have prevented any real disruption to normal traffic in major urban centres.

Some ATMs around the country were reported to have run out of cash, but according to Luyanda Tetyana, Banking Association of South Africa spokesperson, money was generally available.

Three transport unions came to a wage agreement of 10% on Tuesday, but the majority member union, the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu), has vowed that its members will press ahead into the fourth week of strike action.

Satawu spokesperson Vincent Masoga said wage negotiations with the Road Freight Employers' Association broke down again on Tuesday. Satawu reverted to its original demand of 12% and other unions settled for a 10% increase in the first year, 8% in the second and 9% in the third. Satawu is reported to have been reluctant to sign a three-year wage deal and has vowed to intensify its strike action.

Solidarity strike
With reference to previous statements by trade union federation Cosatu's general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi supporting the strike, Masoga said: "We will not stop until every service station runs out of fuel and there are no goods left on the shelf of every store."

Satawu has planned a solidarity strike next week that will incorporate its union members in different sectors of the transport industry. This includes harbour workers, ship dockers and train routers. The aim is to halt the imports sector and the delivery of goods across the country. "There is not going to be movement of any goods next week," said Masoga.

Intensified disruptions could close off other options for delivery. According to clearing agent Sumaya Khatib, "goods are stuck and there is nothing we can do about it. Meanwhile, it is pushing up prices because of unnecessary storage costs."

In the Johannesburg area of Crown Mines, the hub for retail and wholesale distribution of imported goods, business has been severely affected.

Wholesale company Kiraz imports pots, furniture and household textiles from China and has been unable to supply goods to its retailers in South Africa. Truck drivers who have risked delivery faced violent abuse and intimidation.

"One truck driver on his way to Durban had a petrol bomb thrown inside his cab, but he managed to escape," said Ayesha Pandor, director of Kiraz.

But business has not come to a complete standstill because the company has sufficient stock at hand. Some truck drivers drove through the night to deliver goods. Because the company's goods are non-perishable, a portion was delivered by rail from the ports in Durban to Johannesburg.

Pandor said she was also concerned about the effect on employment in the area. "We get about a container [of goods] a week and so do the 15 other businesses in our complex and about 50 in the complex across the road. We employ an average of five people a week, so all those people don't have anything to do," she said.

For Rashida Pandor, director of Freedom Healthcare, the non-delivery of imported goods was a hassle, but she sympathised with the striking drivers. "Never mind our goods; I stand with the truck drivers," she said. "We pay exorbitant amounts to the trucking companies and the drivers get so little of that."

She said truck drivers travelled long distances for hours on end without stopping for fear of being hijacked and were at the forefront of attack from highway robbers.

In general, the severity of the effect of the strike depended on existing stock levels, particularly for perishables, fruits and vegetables, she said.

According to Pheagane Thomas Mawasha, head of marketing and communications at the Joburg Market, there is not much they can do in terms of contingency plans because "the bulk of produce comes from a radius of 500km" and truck deliveries are essential. Produce prices have shot up since the start of the strike. Mawasha calculated that onions had gone up by 48% since the strike began, apples by 21%, bananas by 44%, cabbages by 23% and potatoes by 24%.

A challenge
For Cristina Scola, manager of Phambili Catering, getting hold of fresh fruit and vegetables has been a challenge because certain things are simply not available. Bulk buying options have also been reduced. "There is usually so much choice," she said. "Now you either take what there is or nothing."  

Consumers on social media networks have reported empty shelves at Woolworths and Pick n Pay, which had taped signs on shelves blaming the lack of supply on non-delivery owing to the truck drivers' strike. Frozen food and washing powder are the products most notable for their absence.

Mateboho Kawara, public relations and communications officer at the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, said the shortage of retail goods across the country was a concern, particularly because this is traditionally the time that stores prepare their stock build-up for the Christmas period.

"Alternatives are being sourced from mass stores to augment the shortages," said Kawara.

Other sectors have not seen significant disruptions in day-to-day operations. The public relations officer of the Franchise Association of South Africa, Giuli Osso, said businesses seemed to be coping.

"Franchises are quite resourceful. They can make quick decisions to move stocks from store to store." For example, Jimmy's Killer Prawns, dependent on sea food from the coast, reported minimal disruptions because of contingency planning.

Osso said PostNet outlets had small, unmarked cars for store-to-store deliveries and this alleviated the effect of non-delivery.

Paper supplies have also been affected and some printers have reported a failure of stock and consumers a shortage of toilet paper in supermarkets.

According to André Oberholzer, group head of corporate affairs at Sappi Limited, consumers should not be overly concerned. "I can confirm that we have been affected to a limited degree with regard to incoming raw materials and outgoing stock."

Publishers have also had to deal with the ongoing strike action. Mandla Balisa, managing director at Macmillan South Africa, said plans for the delivery of school textbooks to provincial depots by the end of October had to be re-evaluated. These textbooks were due to be distributed to government schools at the start of 2013.

Balisa was unconcerned that this was a crisis. With the option of using guarded delivery vehicles on the table, there was a good chance they would still meet the deadline.

The South African Post Office has also reported delivery delays in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town and total non-delivery in small towns in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.