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Huge protest decries Wits’s outsourcing practice

“Stop outsourcing! Stop exploitation! Insource!” screamed one placard at Witwatersrand University on Tuesday, as the institution faced its largest protest yet against the practice of outsourcing support workers. 

Under the banner of Oct6, which describes itself as a new student movement, almost 2 000 people staged the protest at Wits – marching and singing inside and outside campus in Braamfontein. Comprising largely students, the protestors included outsourced workers and the university’s academic and administrative staff members. 

Oct6 also organised similar protests at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and University of Cape Town (UCT) on Tuesday, institutions also notorious for outsourcing. 

According to various speakers at the Wits protest and pamphlets distributed there, Tuesday was just a start of a new mass campaign to compel the country’s universities to abolish outsourcing. They want universities to start insourcing in 2016. 

Cleaners, cooks, security guards and maintenance workers such as electricians and landscapers were among the most outsourced employees in the country’s universities. 

The practice at Wits continues despite several years of consistent opposition by the contracted workers and some staff members. Vice-chancellor Adam Habib has repeatedly told outsourced workers he would employ them directly if he could, but the institution simply could not afford this.

But opponents of the practice argue it is the worst form of exploitation of people whom work on campus each day. 

Workers saw their salaries slashed when this form of privatisation was introduced in 1999, firstly at UCT. Many others lost their jobs. 

In a pamphlet distributed at the Wits protest, Oct6 said: “When workers lost their direct employment contracts with universities, they not only had their salaries cut by up to 40%, they also lost the benefits they had once received as employees of universities, including the right for their children to attend university for free. 

“They also lost work security. High rates of casual work means that jobs are insecure. They cannot petition the university for better working conditions because the university no longer employs them directly. 

“University managements make themselves unaccountable to workers because they argue that workers are no longer their responsibility, they are the responsibility of private companies. But workers spend all of their working days on campus, travelling vast distances to provide important services to all of us that live and work at universities.” 

A detailed statement which Oct6 also distributed at the Wits protest accused administrators of paying lip service to the economic plight of outsourced workers: “University administrators, while claiming to be sympathetic to the plight of workers, have refused to address the underlying cause – outsourcing – offering various excuses to continue with the system. In so doing, they have abdicated their responsibility to defend the ideals of public university.”

Placards at the Wits protest spoke loudly. “Respect us. Treat us with dignity. Pay us a better wage,” read one placard a cleaner hoisted. “No more discrimination,” said another. A student placard read: “Black lives are cheap in Africa.” 

Addressing the protest at Wits, outsourced cleaner Elizabeth Mncube said she was happy so many students and workers turned to support the campaign.  

“We’re tired of staying in shacks. Today we want to raise awareness that we’re suffering. We want universities to kick out outsourcing. We want benefits as well. When you retire you’ll find that you have nothing, but you had been working for decades. This was a success but it’s only a start,” said Mncube.

Richard Ndebele, formerly an outsourced electrician at Wits, told how he and about 20 others became “victims of outsourcing” when a company that employed them suddenly disappeared last year. 

Wits management did not even heed their requests to be absorbed by another company, Ndebele said.  “We didn’t get benefits because the company wasn’t registered. How does Wits hire a company that’s not registered? We can’t hide this.” 

Delivering a message of support to workers, a Wits student said: “There is no university without the workers. We as students are standing with you. You’re the lifeblood of the university. We can’t ignore you. We want to say to management how dare you.”

Mathews Bodiba, a landscaper at Wits, compared outsourcing to imperialism. He called for continued solidarity in the campaign. “I want to appeal to ANC, EFF students to fight against this imperialism. It’s not about political parties because at Wits workers are facing an injustice.”

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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