Wits mulls co-ops to end staff woes

Worker-owned co-operatives are the best way to end the “unethical and exploitative” outsourcing of support services at the University of the Witwatersrand. This is according to academics who are working on setting up co-operatives to take over outsourced contracts at the institution.

Outsourcing has been a contentious issue at Wits since 2000, when it was introduced as a cost-cutting measure. The then vice-chancellor, Colin Bundy, privatised services such as cleaning, catering and grounds and building maintenance.

This saw hundreds of support service workers retrenched; about 250 retained their jobs as employees of private companies, but at decreased wages. A hard-hitting 2011 report by the Wits Workers’ Solidarity Committee revealed that cleaners’ wages dropped from R2 227 a month to about R1 200 in 2000.

Last week the Wits administrative campus in Braamfontein was hit by an anti-outsourcing protest against the practice, one of the biggest it has seen in recent years, in which outsourced workers and students demanded that management abolish outsourcing from 2016 and “insource” instead.

Vice-chancellor Adam Habib has repeatedly told outsourced workers he would employ them if he could, but the institution simply could not afford this in the absence of enabling subsidies from the government.

A recent communiqué from deputy vice-chancellor Tawana Kupe said co-operatives are part of its transformation plan. Wits “has put in place penalties for service providers who violate workers’ rights. At the same time, there is an initiative led by Wits academics to assist workers of Wits’s service providers to establish co-operatives to compete for contracts and tenders for some of the university’s outsourced services,” he said.

University spokesperson Shirona Patel this week told the Mail & Guardian that “management supports these [co-operative] efforts”.

David Hornsby, a senior social sciences lecturer and one of the academics behind the initiative, said co-ops would be a viable compromise between outsourced workers and management. “Here at Wits we’ve got on the one side the workers saying they want a better deal, and they deserve that. On the other side we have a vice-chancellor saying he agrees but he cannot afford to hire everybody back.

“So how can you find some middle ground, some way of achieving what the workers need and deserve and actually also recognising that the university has limited financial capacity? I think the only way to do it is we start these co-ops.”

They are also a viable option for the university to untangle itself from an exploitative situation, he said.

“Obviously, the challenge behind outsourcing is primarily a moral and an ethical one,” said Hornsby. “The cost of outsourcing may save the institutions money, but the workers are earning less. We can see that with outsourcing in universities across South Africa, including Wits, key campus staff – cleaners, electricians – are actually getting less wages now [compared] to when the university employed them as staff members.”

But, he added, management must agree to reserve contracts for workers if it truly supports co-operatives.

Said Hornsby: “It will not work in a context where a co-operative is competing against a labour broker. The labour broker will underbid and outbid a co-operative, just by virtue of the model. They can claim to be cheaper because they’ll outsource.”

Patel did not say whether management was willing to do this.

She said: “We are committed to broadening access to our range of service contracts within the context of our broader compliance with tender regulations, and are exploring these options with some groups.”

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