/ 16 July 2020

SABC staff ready to join picket line

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Phalaphala FM had long had an association with VBS, embarking on a series of charity events, including relief for impoverished schoolchildren, which the bank sponsored. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Battle lines have been drawn once more at the SABC as unions prepare to picket over the public broadcaster’s decision to retrench about 600 employees and an allegedly flawed skills auditing process. 

On Thursday, the unions and the SABC were locked in meetings with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) over the public broadcaster’s section 189 retrenchment process. This is ahead of a planned two-day meeting next week by Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications. 

In a statement to their members, the unions said: “Unions will attend [the CCMA meeting] but insist on the process standing down due to all other matters that still need to be attended to, ie, skills audit, consultation, unilateral restructuring, etc, failing which they will then approach the labour court for an interdict.” 

The public broadcaster has serious cash flow and revenue problems. Last year the government extended a bailout of R2.1-billion as part of a R3.2-billion total bailout.

The SABC served its staff members last month with a notice saying that 600 people will be retrenched in a process that is expected to start from September 1. It cited poor advertising sales and the movement of consumers to video and other digital platforms as the cause. The broadcaster said the shift was “due to the organisation not having an adequate online value proposition”. 

But the unions — the Broadcasting Electronic Media and Allied Workers Union and the Communications Workers Union — believe the retrenchment process is flawed. They sent a letter to the broadcaster on June 30, which said: “The SABC should have embarked on a process prior to issuing a section 189 notice wherein it was supposed to involve its employees … on a strategy and operational plan to reposition and turnaround the SABC. It is during that process the SABC was supposed to seek proposals, and in its S189 notice state why it rejected those proposals.” 

The unions say the SABC had not investigated and considered alternatives to retrenchments.

Also at the heart of the dispute is the skills audit process, which the SABC embarked on as part of its turnaround strategy. 

“The skills audit was not done properly and its results cannot be trusted,” the unions said in their letter.

Last month the portfolio committee asked the SABC to complete the skills audit before retrenchments.

 The SABC rubbished the unions’ claims and allegations in a strongly worded response.

“The SABC would like to reject the allegation that it has not  been compliant with the prescribed law. At this stage the first CCMA facilitated session between the SABC and organised labour was held on Thursday, 2 July 2020 and has been postponed to today, 16 July 2020. This process will ensure that engagements are appropriately mediated and that the decisions reached are in the best interest of all parties concerned,” said the SABC in a statement to the Mail & Guardian.

The broadcaster said the skills audit process was done in a transparent manner and had nothing to do with retrenchments. 

The broadcaster said it has to cut costs because of its dire financial situation. “The SABC’s salary bill accounts for more than 45% of its expenditure; this figure is totally out of sync when compared to other broadcasters. The narrative that suggest that the SABC has not explored any other option prior to issuing of the notice of its intention to embark on a retrenchment process is misleading,” said the SABC.

The Democratic Alliance’s Phumzile van Damme, who sits on the portfolio committee, said she had asked that the unions attend the meeting “because we need to be presented with both sides of the story”.

“It is not that we want to mediate, but as a body that has oversight we need to know what is going on, because concerned staff have approached us. They do need to do the skills audit and it is a fact that SABC staff is bloated because Hlaudi [Motsoeneng, once the chief operating officer] hired a lot of people, but with the skills audit and salary audit then there will be a better sense where to cut, otherwise it is random and that is not fair.”

Last year, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told the National Council of Provinces that the SABC was looking for ways to generate revenue and do away with unnecessary costs.