How labour broking almost broke the post office

A new working paper on the end of labour broking at the post office is a cogent critique of the labour broking system and its role in the downward spiral of industrial relations at the state-owned utility.

The paper is written by David Dickinson, a sociology professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate at the university’s Society, Work and Development Institute. The paper, titled Fighting their own battles: The Mabarete and the end of labour broking in the South African Post Office, was launched on Friday.

It is a timely intervention in a public discourse largely concerned with whether or not an aunt’s birthday card arrived months late and seeks to redirect the conversation to the casualisation of labour, its impact on the lives of postal deliverymen and women, and the way the labour broking system has defined economic injustice.

The paper specifically highlights the physical and psychological impacts of the system on post office workers, particularly postal delivery workers, and how this slowly became a “toxic” and, later, a violent and desperate situation.

Bitter divide
Dickinson hones in on the “Mabarete”, a group which came together during the 2011-2012 strike. Dickinson says this group was the most effective to emerge from the post office casual workers’ committees, “which can be credited with ending labour broking in the post office”.

Later, the paper looks at the Mabarete’s “struggle” within the broader industrial relations environment and asks whether “the most effective way of addressing inequality in South Africa may well be the upgrading of precarious workers’ jobs …”

It looks at the Mabarete’s tactical efforts to end a 12-year-long grievance at the post office.

At the heart of this grievance was a bitter divide between casual workers, employed through labour brokers, and permanent workers employed directly by the post office.

Storm in a teacup
A small, yet poignant example of the chasm between permanent employees and workers employed on a casual basis was that of tea allowances.

Permanent workers were given a tea and coffee allowance. Casual workers did not get this allowance.

“The resentment generated by this petty, intraworker discrimination cannot be underestimated,” Dickinson writes.

Meanwhile, casual workers were mainly not unionised. They formed workers committees like the Mabarete instead.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) was the only recognised union at the post office until a breakaway union was formed in 2012. Dickinson says the CWU, with the exception of a few instances, “made little efforts to prevent the increasing use of labour brokers”.

While several agreements were reached between the CWU and the post office over labour brokers, these were not enforced, he says.

The use of labour brokers brought the post office’s expenses down, a strategy aimed at relieving it of some of its financial woes. Dickinson’s research shows at that at its height, labour broking saved the post office about R380-million a year in salaries. Additionally, costs were reduced because workers employed on this basis did not receive pensions or medical aid like permanent employees did.

“The labour broking system created an explosive industrial relations environment and destroyed pride and loyalty in the organisation,” Dickinson writes.

Different working conditions
A moratorium on hiring new workers was put in place in 2000. All the while, postal deliveries expanded. New routes that needed to be covered by fewer workers were split between them. The use of cheaper labour through labour brokers to mitigate this gradually became “a permanent arrangement and, with the moratorium on appointments still in place, workers placed by labour brokers came to outnumber permanent workers in mail delivery,” writes Dickinson.

Add into the mix a situation where labour brokers billed monthly for labour, often for amounts that did not reflect the time sheets filled in by workers.

“That was tough for the workers,” Dickinson writes.

Labour broker employees had different working conditions to those of permanent workers and were paid less.

“They had no pension contributions, less leave days, less sick days, no housing subsidy , they were not issued with post office uniforms, and were provided with inadequate wet-weather clothing. Nor were they entitled to an annual profit-linked, ‘gain-sharing’ bonus paid to permanent workers,” Dickinson writes.

‘Akin to a form of slavery’
On average, Dickinson says, a permanent employee in 2011 earned R8 000 a month. The post office would pay a labour broker R4 000 a month to supply a worker, and the worker would be paid R2 000 a month. The labour broker made R2 000 a month for each worker they provided, and the post office saved R4 000 a month.

The system, Dickinson adds, allowed for workers to simply be replaced by the labour brokers at their employer’s request.

“Workers were told to their face that if they joined a union they would be fired.”

The system of labour broking “was akin to a form of slavery from which escape seemed impossible”.

Dickinson also notes the role of trade union federation Cosatu in the deteriorating situation.

Despite repeated Cosatu statements about the casualisation of work, “their union [CWU] was doing next to nothing about it in their own back yard.”

The relationship between casual workers and the CWU seems to have broken down irreparably after the 2009 strike, which yielded broken promises.

Next, Dickinson documents the efforts of casual workers to solve their problems within a democratic framework. Name the government department, chapter nine institution, or political party, and it’s likely that the workers knocked on their door at some point for help. None came.

Dickinson’s paper details the events of the years that followed in detail too thorough to be repeated here.

With faith in the options available to them irrevocably in tatters, tactically, the Mabarete decided that they had had enough of talking to the labour brokers. Now they would disrupt mail delivery across Gauteng.

“They were no more interested in union support than they were in applying for a strike certificate,” Dickinson writes.

Many casual workers were dismissed and “most received notice via SMS”.

Liturgy of broken promises
But the mail delivery disruption strategy did not work: workers employed by labour brokers were just not that valuable. The Mabarete began a strategy which involved groups of workers visiting the homes of managers.

One visit, to a Wits region mail manager’s home, “changed everything”. The manager was not home. The workers had not reached the train station after leaving his home, where a message was left with his family that the strikers would return, when the manager called. He wanted to talk.

This small breakthrough signalled the beginning of the end of the impasse.

Nearly three years on and the situation is far from being completely resolved. But, Dickinson says, “despite contestation over the details of the final negotiated settlement, the strike brought an end to labour broking in the post office. It was not the only factor in this regard … what propelled the Mabarete was impatience at the grindingly slow progress and a liturgy of broken promises.”

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 


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