/ 26 May 2015

Wits vice-chancellor says state can help end exploitation

The Great Hall at Wits University.
The Great Hall at Wits University. Photo: Supplied

In a bid to abolish the “exploitative” and controversial practice of outsourcing support service workers on campus, Wits University should embark on a national campaign with civil groups to lobby the state to provide enabling funds, vice-chancellor Adam Habib said this week.

In a communiqué inviting comments on how the university could “accelerate transformation”, Habib said on Tuesday “an end to the exploitation of workers through insourcing of all outsourced services” was critical to the transformation of universities.

He said that within Wits and externally, “there have been increasing calls” that the university’s management should directly employ workers whose jobs have been outsourced over the past two decades.

“This has been motivated on the grounds that the workers who service Wits from these outsourced companies tend to be grossly exploited and in some cases even abused. It is hard to argue against this advocacy when the salaries of workers are considered and their stories are heard,” Habib said.

“After all, the entire outsourcing industry is premised on the super-exploitation of vulnerable workers who are at the lowest levels of the labour hierarchy,” he added.

Habib said for Wits to commit to eradicating the practice, the “challenge is that [the institution] does not have the resources required to insource these services and put the workers directly on to our payroll”.

He said if management were to decide to directly employ the workers “without throwing the institution into financial crisis”; it would have to hike student fees by an additional 15% above the normal annual increase.

This would see fees at the institution increasing by about 25% each year. But such a decision “is difficult given the current economic plight of our students and their families”, said Habib.

The other option was to obtain an “equivalent increase in the subsidy from the state”. Arguing the state “was unlikely” to increase subsidies to meet university needs “in the near future”; he suggested the launch of a concerted campaign to get the state to come to the table.

“Given all of this, it would perhaps be prudent for Wits to partner with civil society organisations and unions to launch a national campaign, the goal of which would be to increase subsidies to universities with a view to insourcing all outsourced services that involve vulnerable workers,” he said.

Habib told the Mail & Guardian the form and nature of the campaign would have to be decided by participating groups and his university. 

“Wits, together with the higher education sector and civil society organisations, would have to adopt multiple strategies to lobby and campaign for additional resources, including subsidies from government, to fund this campaign.

“The particular strategies would have to be developed in conjunction with civil society partners.”

Khaye Nkwanyana, spokesperson of Blade Nzimande’s ministry of higher education and training, told the M&G while “any institution has a right to lobby us, we will respond on the basis of what we get from the treasury. Our role will be to look at what’s available in the national fiscus for such subsidy expansion.”

Wits introduced outsourcing in 2000. Then-vice-chancellor Colin Bundy privatised cleaning, catering and electrical and grounds maintenance. Hundreds of Wits workers were retrenched, only for about 250 to be re-employed by private companies. This resulted in wages being slashed, and those of cleaners dropped from R2 227 a month to about R1 200.

For fours years the Wits Workers Solidarity Committee, comprising academic staff, students and outsourced workers, have campaigned for improved working conditions and salaries for the affected workers. Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, now spokesperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters, was active in the committee when he was still full-time on campus.

The committee opened a can of worms in October 2011 when it submitted a hard-hitting report to the university’s senate accusing management of practising apartheid-style segregation and describing the poor treatment of outsourced workers.

After a protracted campaign by the committee, management launched an investigation in November 2012 into long-standing allegations of discrimination against outsourced workers.

Stopgap measures

The investigation concluded that outsourced workers indeed worked under poor conditions on campus. Habib said in his communiqué that management has since established “stopgap measures”, which included writing to contracted companies “to abide by certain minimum salary thresholds and observe labour relation requirements”.

But it seems little has changed. When the M&G visited campus on Tuesday, about 100 workers — supported by a few students — were demonstrating during lunch hour at a concourse of a building that houses Habib’s office.

Mpho Masuku, a member of the committee and the South African Students Congress, addressed the workers and told them they are “continuously exploited at this university”.

To a resounding “yes” and calls of ‘Amandla‘ (power) from the workers, Masuku said:  “We’re using this demonstration to create awareness and to send a clear message to vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib that we’re not afraid. We want better treatment of workers”.

Masuku told the M&G “most of the people you see here get less than R1 500 per month. Can you educate your children on R1 500 per month? Of course you can’t. The point is that the university outsources instead of employing directly.”

Thembi Luckett, a student and member of the committee, told the M&G it was misleading of management to claim the university would collapse financially if it decided to employ the workers.

“To hide behind finances is a lie because other universities insource. Rhodes University insources and it’s not about to collapse. If Wits [management] claims to stand for human rights and justice, [insourcing] would be the first thing to do. At the moment they are being hypocrites,” Luckett said.

“They are benefitting from outsourcing. No one is benefiting from outsourcing except [contracted] companies and Wits management.”

The demonstration was also an expression of solidarity with 22 outsourced electricians at the university who have recently lost their jobs.

Richard Ndebele, one of the affected electricians, told the M&G they viewed their situation as “a result of outsourcing”. He said the practice was “a strategy to oppress black people”.

‘They are destroying also the future of our children’

“We believe as black workers, they are using us. We’re not benefitting. Only the owners of the companies are benefiting. Wits is also benefiting, that’s why they [management] don’t care about us.

“What makes me feel too bad is that they are not only destroying our future, they are destroying also the future of our children. We’re parents working for our children to survive, and then if they take our jobs away how are out children going to survive?”

But Habib said management has “done all that it can within its power and within the law to assist” the electricians. He said if the university were to decide to incorporate them “we would be setting a precedent to do so for the other 5 000 suppliers that could find themselves in the same situation. This would not be feasible”.

“We cannot resolve the inequality of society as a whole; this is the responsibility of government. We are constrained by the resources that we obtain from fees and subsidy,” Habib told the M&G.

His communiqué to the university is not only limited to the outsourcing debate, but focuses on the broader transformation pace of Wits.

Among a range of interventions, it proposes committing of R45-million of university funds to the appointment of black staff and the “creation of an enabling environment for promotions for staff already in the system”, mandatory curriculum reform discussions across the institution and fostering of an institutional culture that condemns racism.

Habib urged the entire university community to supply “comments, criticisms and further suggestions” to him. These will be considered in the development of a strategic plan on transformation that he will present to the senate and council for consideration and adoption.

“It is my hope that this, then, will serve as Wits’ definitive response on how to end marginalisation on our campuses and foster the emergence of a diverse, cosmopolitan place of globally competitive teaching, learning and research where every one of us experiences belonging and a deep sense of pride.”