Metal industry turmoil intensifies

The turf war in the metals and engineering sector continues to heat up, with employer organisations at each other’s throats and the chance of a resolution now appears to be even slimmer than before.

The dispute between the National Employers’ Association of South Africa (Neasa) and other members of the metals and engineering industry bargaining council, was intensified by last month’s three-year wage agreement with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) to increase the wages of the lowest-paid members by 10% each year. Neasa claimed some of its 3 000 members could not afford more than 8% and instituted a lock-out, which continues, in protest over the agreement, which, it says, will accelerate the demise of the industry.

The hostility between the parties increased last Friday when a management committee meeting began to ratify the wage agreement and formally extend it to all members of the bargaining council. After that, the council can request the minister to extend it to the entire industry. But Neasa says it will block it legally.

Last week, in a press release, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa), representing the largest employers in the industry and employing an estimated 200 000 workers, said Neasa’s strident propaganda showed the organisation’s “growing desperation”.

This followed an August 13 release by the bargaining council that blamed Neasa’s persistent legal action since 2011 as the main reason for uncertainty in the industry.

Neasa responded by saying it was in fact Seifsa that perpetuated untruths and, on Monday August 18, in an industry newsletter, it asked businesses to reconsider their support for Seifsa, suggesting it amounted to indirect support for Numsa, and asked members not to renew their Seifsa membership, or even to resign.

The Neasa chief executive, Gerhard Papenfus, said fewer than 100 companies were involved in locking out Numsa employees.

The union’s general secretary, Irvin Jim, said the lock-out was having little impact on Numsa, but Papenfus disagreed: “They are playing it down because it’s a huge embarrassment.” He said Numsa members were resigning from the union, in which case employers had to allow them back to work.

Many Neasa members and even some Seifsa members have not implemented the agreement.

A dispute over the verification of the membership of the bargaining council has been holding up the process of forcibly extending the agreement. The law states that, if the parties reaching agreement do not have more than 50% representivity, the minister can use her discretion in extending the agreement. Neasa believes Seifa and Numsa may not necessarily meet the 50% threshold, as they did at the last count.

The general secretary of the bargaining council, Thulani Mthiyane, said it had received data from the Unemployment Insurance Fund and, with data from pension funds, would help to determine the level of representivity, which would be put to council members soon. 

‘Scratching for numbers’
But this was unlikely to suffice, said Papenfus: “These numbers have been manipulated in the past and we are ‘hawk sitting’, and that is why they are scratching for numbers. The UIF can’t tell them the size of organisations and how large Numsa [is].”

The department of labour will have to be satisfied with the membership numbers before it extends the agreement to the entire industry.

“Whatever we do, we will always be challenged by Neasa,” Mthiyane said. “They want to drain our resources and go to court, then maybe we will collapse and they will achieve what they want … We have enough resources to fight for the next six years. If we decide to fight this fight, we will go to each and every company that does not comply.”

Jim said that, once the extension had been finalised, the union would consider taking action against those who refused to implement the wage increases. He said the union believed Numsa remained the majority union by a large margin.

According to Marius Croucamp, the head of industry for Solidarity, the current turmoil does not bode well for the bargaining council. “It’s very messy. To really resolve this matter they need to come to an agreement at the council. But everybody is so positional, nobody giving an inch,” he said. “We will soon have to ask: Is this council functioning properly if this can’t be sorted out?”

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