Workers are trapped in slavery wages, says Vavi

Workers in South Africa have no reason to celebrate 20 years of freedom because they are not free, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Tuesday.

“Workers ask what is being celebrated on Freedom Day because they have nothing to show for it,” Vavi told thousands of striking metalworkers in central Johannesburg.

“Workers are still trapped in slavery wages. The people who celebrate the freedom are the bosses.” Vavi and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) president Andrew Chirwa earlier handed a memorandum of demands to officials of the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council, and Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa). 

About 220 000 metalworkers began an indefinite strike on Tuesday for a double-digit wage increase. Marches were held in Cape Town, George, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London. 

Vavi said workers suffered because of the greed of those in charge of production. “Workers are tired of relying on government for housing. Metalworkers need at least R1 000 a month in housing allowance,” he said. 

Cheers and whistles punctuated each of his sentences. He said those old enough needed to move out of their parents’ backyards and be able to afford their own houses.

Earlier, Vavi said the strike was a political fight for a living wage. “We are told that we are being irresponsible for embarking on a strike. We are told this is not about workers, but about Numsa’s decisions taken at its last congress,” Vavi said. “A demand for a living wage is political, because it is politics that allowed such conditions 20 years into a democracy.” 

Economy’s poor health
He said workers were not to blame for the economy’s poor health. Vavi thanked Numsa for supporting him during his suspension from Cosatu last year. “I thank Numsa for the support when the hyenas came for me,” he told the strikers. The union took the matter to court and successfully fought against the suspension. Vavi was subsequently reinstated. He said Numsa stood its ground and refused to be manipulated. 

“Cosatu was going to be turned from a militant federation to a sweetheart for those in power,” he said to thunderous applause. Workers wanted a Cosatu that did not look down, he said, but spoke out to those in power. 

“Another important fact is that Numsa never said it wanted out of Cosatu … that is a lie.” Numsa’s demand for a 12% wage increase was a compromise, he said. “We want 15% … asijiki nge 15% [we are not turning back on 15%].” 

The union dismissed claims that some of their striking members were involved in intimidation and violence. The Star newspaper’s afternoon edition reported that a worker at a metal company in Selby Industrial Park claimed strikers vandalised the building. 

“They came at about 8.15am and broke the building’s windows and gate,” the unnamed worker was quoted as saying. Numsa spokesperson Castro Ngobese rejected this. “That is the worst form of propaganda,” Ngobese said. “Anyone that says that the strike was violent is promoting violence.” – Sapa

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