/ 9 November 2012

Wits takes hard look at controversial outsourcing

Protestors at the University of the Witwatersrand
Protestors at the University of the Witwatersrand

The University of the Witwatersrand has launched an investigation into long-standing allegations of discrimination against outsourced workers. They claim that the radical salary cuts that followed the university's outsourcing of most non-academic services more than a decade ago amounted to unfair treatment.

A hard-hitting report submitted by the Wits workers' solidarity committee to the university's senate in October last year accused it of practising apartheid-style segregation and the poor treatment of outsourced workers ('"Abused' workers at their Wits' end", Mail & Guardian, October 28 2011).

Wits University introduced outsourcing in 2000. Then-vice-chancellor Colin Bundy privatised cleaning, catering and grounds maintenance. Hundreds of Wits workers were retrenched but about 250 were re-employed by private companies. Cleaners' wages dropped from R2 227 a month to about R1 200, according to the solidarity committee's report, which called for an investigation into whether outsourcing has benefited the university, as Wits's management claimed it would when introducing it in 2000.

For almost two years the committee, comprising academic staff, students and outsourced workers, has been campaigning for improved working conditions and salaries for the affected workers.

Missing out on empowerment
"We'd be happy if Wits were to review outsourcing with an understanding that outsourcing does not favour communities. The majority of black workers are not getting empowered because of outsourcing. This is happening here at Wits too," said a gardener, himself one of those outsourced.

Another worker said: "After working here for nine years, my salary has not gone over R2 000. Salaries are what we're hoping the investigation will improve the most, because they are an issue that worries us a lot."

The workers' contracts with companies to which Wits University outsourced many services needed a close look, said solidarity committee member Tokelo Nhlapo. "The university needs to confront the ugly truth that outsourced workers are treated like second-class citizens [on its campuses]. This goes against the values of the university."

Some universities, such as the University of Cape Town, tried going the outsourcing route in the early 2000s but have since returned to employing non-academic workers. "Outsourcing is no longer fashionable and the university must realise that. Just across the road [at the University of Johannesburg] cleaners are employed by the university," Nhlapo said.

Wits vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa said the investigation would look into the cost-effectiveness of outsourcing, conditions of service for workers and their allegations "that they have been subjected to discrimination, victimisation and harassment by their [contracted] employers and/or others [at the university]".