How communication workers taught the labour courts a lesson

“Loopholes” in South Africa’s industrial relations framework have resulted in a system where “precarious workers” are left outside of a system that should protect their rights, according to a paper presented this week.

Professor David Dickinson, from Wits University’s department of sociology, argues in his paper that workers who are not permanently employed are effectively treated as second-class citizens.

Using the post office strike as a case study, Dickinson traces the development of the workers’ struggle against casualisation in the parastatal to the eventual end of labour broking there.

The post office is under administration and announced on May 6 that it would retrench 5 000 workers and put 1 000 on early retirement.

Dickinson documents a series of strikes, starting in 2009. Strikes continued, on-again-off-again, until 2012, but strikes over a different issue, led by the majority union which was eventually ousted, continued until December 2014.

Breakaway groups
Cosatu has campaigned for a ban on labour broking, but it was not until the promulgation of new labour relations laws in January this year that labour brokers were regulated.

These amendments to the Labour Relations Act mean that temporary workers, and those employed by labour brokers, are entitled to the same benefits as permanent workers such as retirement benefits.

In addition, employers are not allowed to hire workers on contracts of more than three months without employing them permanently, unless there are “justifiable reasons” not to do so, according to the Act.

The strike also resulted in the formation of splinter unions, made up of former workers’ committees, which evolved as a reaction to what workers saw as unhelpful established unions.

It was these breakaway groups that ultimately succeeded, after about a decade of struggle, in ending the use of labour brokers at the parastatal.

Dickinson writes that the post office turned around its finances until 2010, but it did so largely by reducing the number of permanent employees and gradually outsourcing labour.

Complex distrust
The result was a workforce largely consisting of casual workers who were paid about a quarter of what permanent staff earned. They were also not entitled to the many benefits afforded to permanent workers.

“On the ground,” writes Dickinson, “Two unequal workforces labouring side by side resulted in toxic workplace relationship. While there were exceptions, the general experience of casual workers was one of discrimination at the hands of supervisors and permanent co-workers.”

Meanwhile, casual workers tried to persuade the Communication Workers Union (CWU) – the majority union at the post office – to take up their plight.

Dickinson notes that, in fairness, the CWU did put the casual workers’ wages “on the table” during wage negotiations. But ultimately, the union did not have a legal mandate to negotiate on behalf of employees employed by labour brokers.

Workers eventually organised outside of the CWU, and Dickinson traces the evolution of these new means of organisation.

How the distrust developed between the CWU and casual workers is complex. Casual workers filled in membership forms, but their subscriptions were not deducted because the CWU did not have a recognition agreement with the labour brokers.

The use of labour broking continued, despite continued calls for its banning by Cosatu, which the CWU is affiliated to.

Beating ‘the dog’
As a response to the CWU’s failure, Dickinson writes, workers’ committees were formed from about 2005. The relationship between them was often fractious and their organisation was fragmented.

Workers embarked on a strike in 2009 and the banning of labour brokers was a central demand.

“What is striking is just how many attempts workers’ committees made to resolve their problems within the constitutional framework,” writes Dickinson.

He notes that workers explored every available avenue, even seeking private legal assistance.

In 2011, the West Rand workers committee marched to Cosatu’s office to plead for their intervention. While sympathetic, the federation was largely unhelpful.

Dickinson says that the workers’ attempts to get help from Cosatu were “perhaps the most frustrating”.

A serious of unprotected strikes took place between June and August that year, marking the first sustained casual workers’ strike.

Their slogan? “We are the union ourselves!”

The labour court then interdicted the strikers, but they had learned a number of lessons; the post office needed to be their focus, and not the labour brokers.

“The court cases had made it clear that, in local idiom, if they beat the dog [mail delivery] hard enough, the real owner would emerge.”

Agreement reached
A more militant group – the Maberete – emerged from the workers’ committees and started to hunt down workers who did not participate in the strike in the townships.

But even their militancy was not enough to ban labour broking, because the post office placed very little value on the easily-replaceable casual workers, employed by labour brokers, according to Dickinson.

It took a visit to a manager’s house for a breakthrough to occur. Shortly after the visit, the Maberete received a call from the manager: he wanted to negotiate.

An agreement was reached – this time directly between striking workers and the post office. The Maberete would be reinstated, and they would be given permanent positions within three months.

“By July 2012, the use of labour brokers at the post office had ended,” Dickinson writes.

Two new trade unions – the South African Postal and Allied Workers’ Union (Sapawu) and the Democratic Postal and Communications Union (Depacu) are the result of the struggle against casualisation.

Sapawu broke away from the CWU in 2009, and Depacu was formed from workers’ committees in the 2011 and 2012 strikes.

The CWU refused to sign the agreement between the post office and the two other unions. It now represents 39% of the workers at the post office.

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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