No pedal to the metal as bus strike rolls on

Stranded: Commuters queue at the Cape Town taxi rank as the nationwide bus drivers’ strike drags on, with no end in sight to the wage impasse. (David Harrison)

Stranded: Commuters queue at the Cape Town taxi rank as the nationwide bus drivers’ strike drags on, with no end in sight to the wage impasse. (David Harrison)

“You have to imagine,” Lubabalo Hanyane said. “Maybe you take the bus in the morning at seven ... driving from Durban to Port Elizabeth. You arrive at Port Elizabeth at around 10pm at night. And then you leave the following day, only to get back home again at 10 at night.”

Hanyane, a Greyhound driver from Durban, said it is this lost time — the hours between a driver’s arrival at a destination and the time he leaves the next day — that is at the heart of why many long-distance drivers are on strike.

The 39-year-old is one of the hundreds of workers from 67 bus companies who put on the brakes last week when wage talks fell apart after months of negotiations between employers, workers and unions.

One of the demands that has become a sticking point in the negotiations is the foot-on-the-pedal rule, which decrees that long-distance drivers are paid only for the time that they are at the wheel and not for the time in between.

Five unions are participating in the strike — the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the Tirisano Transport and Service Workers Union, the Transport and Omnibus Workers Union and the Transport and Allied Workers Union.

On Thursday last week, a meeting with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration was called in an effort to break the deadlock but again the offers tabled by both sides were rejected.

On Tuesday this week, the labour department was called in to intervene. Negotiations continued late into the night but Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant was unable to end the stalemate. Unions are now calling on Transport Minister Blade Nzimande to end the impasse.

“You must understand that the long distances make being a bus driver a difficult job,” says Hanyane, who has been one for four years. “On top of being away from home, you don’t get paid for those hours. If you are at work, you are at work and so you’re supposed to get paid.”

To ensure remuneration for this time, drivers and unions are calling for a redefinition of night-shift hours — which are currently from 8pm to 3am, as per the South African Road Passenger Bargaining Council — to be from 6pm to 6am, as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) defines night work.

They are also arguing that the foot-on-the-pedal rule unfairly affects dual drivers, the drivers who accompany the main long-distance drivers and, along with performing other duties, relieve the main drivers when fatigue sets in.

Numsa said in a statement released on Tuesday that these drivers “must be paid the minute he is inside the bus” and accused employers of flouting the BCEA by unilaterally contracting out of the Act’s provisions on night work.

But the two organisations representing the interests of bus companies, the South African Bus Employers Association and the Commuter Bus Employers Organisation (COBEO) said the cost of imposing the standard 6pm to 6am shift would be too high because of the number of drivers working that shift.

Meshack Ramela, spokesperson for COBEO, said the 8pm to 3am shift was determined by a collective agreement between the bargaining council, the employers’ organisations and the unions.

But Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said this agreement was made during a period of disunity between the unions and before Numsa became the second-biggest union in the bargaining council. He said all unions now stood together in these negotiations to advance the interests of workers.

Responding to an assertion by Ramela that the reason employers were unable to budge on certain demands was a result of state budget cuts in the transport sector, Jim said that, if this was the case, employers should be working with unions to force the government to subsidise the sector.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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