Post office strike continues as union talks collapse

Post office workers have been striking intermittently about unresolved labour issues for the past three years. (Theana Breugem, Gallo)

Post office workers have been striking intermittently about unresolved labour issues for the past three years. (Theana Breugem, Gallo)

Negotiations to end the strike – which has been carrying on intermittently for at least three years – have now “collapsed”, said the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) this week.

The minister of telecommunications and postal services, Siyabonga Cwele, who is politically accountable for the South African Post Office (Sapo), was not immediately available for comment, but his spokesperson, Siya Qoza, told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday: “What place does a ministry have with engaging with what is happening at Sapo and the union?”

He also directed the M&G to comments Cwele made at a CWU congress in Mpumalanga last month.

Cwele, who had been in the job for just over a month at the time, told the congress that he was in discussions with the treasury to address the financial crisis at the post office.

The post office has what it calls a “turnaround plan” to cut costs and improve efficiency, among other things.

“Hostile” environment
Cwele told the congress in White River that the turnaround plan could not succeed “if there is no effective oversight, if there is no effective management and if the labour relations environment is so hostile as to produce strikes at every turn”.

“I urge you, comrades, to join hands with us as we work the post office out of [its] present state.”

The CWU, which has more than 8 500 members who work for the post office, has now asked for the government to intervene. It wants Cwele to fire the board as well as arrange a treasury bailout of the parastatal.

The union also wants the post office to convert nearly 8 000 casual workers into permanent staff. This was the initial reason for the strike.

Clyde Mervin, the new president of the CWU, told the M&G on Thursday that they had now issued Cwele with an ultimatum.

“We told the minister: ‘If you don’t remove the board, we are going to challenge you,’” he said.

He said the post office had claimed to be in financial distress and operating at a loss, but salaries among management had increased while casual workers have gone unpaid.

Lungile Lose, Sapo’s head of corporate services, said this week that it had adopted what he termed a “flexible” labour strategy to hire the casual workers as permanent employees, but, as a result of the post office’s financial position, a “slower approach” was in place, he said.

“There is no disagreement on the issue that people need decent jobs.
In 2012-2013 we took people off labour broking. The second phase was to establish [an] entry-level category from which we will move employees to permanent placement with benefits, the most affordable benefits. Full employment with full benefits will equal undue financial stress to an organisation that is already making losses,” said Lose.

Too many agreements
Lose said that the post office had entered into too many labour agreements and supplementary contracts with labour unions that it could no longer meet. “This lies at the heart of the strike that has paralysed essential postal services and left customers seething,” he said.

A recent article in the Star said a draft audit report by firms Deloitte and Nkonki alleged that the post office had used the employees’ pension fund to pay off an overdraft of R250-million. It also claimed the post office had spent more than R2.1-billion in irregular expenditure in the past financial year and noted that the financial losses resulted from the irregular awarding of tenders.

CWU national general secretary Aubrey Tshabalala said post office management has been unwilling to meet with the union to resolve the labour dispute. He said Sapo’s executives are undermining the normal negotiation and arbitration processes.

“They [management] have been encouraging different groups of casual workers to form unions. As a result, the strike turned bad. People were assaulted and property was vandalised and some was burned down,” said Tshabalala.

In February, President Jacob Zuma ordered the Special Investigating Unit to probe allegations around mismanaged funds, irregular expenditure and tendering for procurement contracts at the post office. This was based on last year’s reported loss of R178.6-million on a turnover of R5.7-billion, while struggling to fund a wage bill of R230-million. Other irregular expenditure included using outsourced services such as DHL to deliver mail. The investigation is ongoing.

Cwele told Parliament that Sapo’s bank overdraft had deepened from R90-million in June to R323-million in August. 

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