Wits 'can't afford to end outsourcing' of workers

Adam Habib. (Lisa Skinner, MG)

Adam Habib. (Lisa Skinner, MG)

Bitter tensions over outsourced workers at the University of the Witwatersrand escalated this week when the institution's top management insisted it could not afford to abandon the controversial practice.

In a heated meeting with about 400 outsourced workers this week, new vice-chancellor Adam Habib said he would "love" to reverse outsourcing but "can't take the risk and run the university into a crisis". 

"I know the one thing you want is to be insourced. I can't afford it," Habib said.

But his audience was clearly unconvinced. 

"It's not your money we want, but the university's," a cleaner said. "This R2 000 [monthly salary] is probably your child's lunch stipend." 

Said another: "It's not that we want huge money, just reasonable money so that we can improve lives in our homes."

Habib replied: "I wish I could, but I can't.
There are no reserves. I'm talking about Wits's money. Wits doesn't have money. If I start spending recklessly, then nine months from now Wits will be in trouble."

The Mail & Guardian has obtained a management-commissioned report handed to the senate last week that says insourcing would double labour costs to R150-million a year. 

The report considered services such as cleaning, catering, grounds maintenance and student transport.

Habib said he would be "happy" to consider insourcing again "if [Wits] starts earning more income in two to three years". 

But this would come from either hiking student fees or getting increased funding from the government. 

"I don't like outsourcing, I think it's wrong. If I [had been] here in 2001 I would not have done it," he added. 

Outsourcing was introduced in 1999 by then vice-chancellor Colin Bundy, igniting more than a decade of campus conflict that remains unresolved.

More than 1 000 workers are outsourced, the report said.

The university's deputy vice-chancellor for finance, Tawana Kupe, confirmed that it has no cash reserves. 

"If you look around the university you see new infrastructure. After these projects, we don't have reserves."

"The cost of insourcing is not something we can afford now," he said.

The M&G previously reported that Wits had pumped R1.5-billion into improving and developing facilities four years ago.

"The only thing we want from Wits is civilisation, not the continuation of [economic] apartheid," said landscaper Mathews Bodiba, whose R2 500 salary includes a R300 supplement from Wits. 

"I think it's still early for Habib to say now he doesn't even have a cent. They should at least say 'we'll discuss things as senior management and see how much we can offer you'." 

The students' representative council and the Wits Workers Solidarity Committee, a forum comprising academics, students and outsourced workers, lashed out at management for "shockingly endorsing exploitation".

"In a context where an overwhelmingly black, female and working-class labour force is reduced to cheap labour (servicing an academic staff that is disproportionately white and male), outsourcing arguably replicates apartheid on our campus," they said.

Kupe said it was "unfair" to accuse Wits of apartheid practices. 

"Under apartheid there were not even minimum wages," he said.

Bongani Nkosi

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