Eastern Cape’s First Automobile Works factory goes back on its word

Disgruntled workers at vehicle manufacturer First Automobile Works (FAW) in the Eastern Cape are entering their ninth week on strike, with no resolution in sight. “We are planning on doing a march to the mayor’s office because things have not worked well with negotiations with the employer,” says a 50-year-old shop steward.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is still hopeful that talks at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) will yield positive results, despite the two parties remaining deadlocked. The company has outsourced work to meet production demands during the strike. 

More than 100 Numsa members, including 70 casual workers, downed tools at the Gqeberha plant in October demanding a minimum wage increase for all workers, a medical aid contribution from the employer, a provident fund and the full-time employment of all outsourced workers who had been employed at the plant for more than three months. The union also raised concerns over FAW’s refusal to join the Automotive Manufacturers Employers’ Association, which means it is not part of the national bargaining forum at which the union negotiates wages.  

Numsa has had numerous engagements with the company at the CCMA. “The employer offered us 15% but this was a verbal agreement, so we asked that they have the agreement in writing and they suddenly reverted back to the 7%,” says a 36-year-old worker who wanted to remain anonymous. 

Backtracking on verbal deals

Numsa has become a more radical union since its exit from the tripartite alliance. It remains adamant that despite the pandemic, which has caused mass retrenchments in the past two years, workers will not only retain their jobs but also come out of this strike successful.  

Numsa’s Gqeberha’s branch has had a busy year. The union led a number of strikes and successfully negotiated better working conditions and wages for some of its members. But the national metal and engineering strike, Numsa’s biggest this year, is reported to have cost workers an estimated R100-million in lost wages because of a “no work, no pay” policy adopted by employers, the Steel and Engineering Industry Federation of South Africa and Numsa. The policy also regulates employee’s behaviour during a strike, including not allowing them to stop non-striking employees from working and also prohibiting them from blocking company entrances or exits. 

Workers are feeling the pinch as the FAW strike stretches on. “Some of our members are losing momentum. We are scared that they might give in,” a shop steward says. Employees have been without an income for almost two months, and many say their families have been most affected. 

But the shop steward says the strike is dragging on because the company shifts the goalpost every time they meet. “The company has been chopping and changing their offer. We originally wanted a one-year deal for 2021 but they [wanted] to extend it to 2022. The company came with a final offer of 11% this year and 9% next year on condition that we don’t negotiate for 2022. [But] when we went to [the] CCMA, they went back to 7% [and] the members rejected this.

“During the negotiations, the employer would want to come with a verbal offer but when it came to having this in writing this would be reverted and it would differ from what has been placed on the table verbally.”

The company and the union disagree on medical aid contributions, with FAW saying the negotiated contribution amount must be built into the hourly increase, while Numsa insists it is a stand-alone demand. “This is why we keep on rejecting offers. They have not moved from their low offer,” the shop steward says. 

A shop steward and a local organiser tested positive for Covid-19, so planned negotiations for bonuses that were going to take place in the third week of December will be moved to another date. The union is waiting for a response from the employer on their request for the payment of leave to workers. 

“We have asked the employer to open their books, their financial statements, their management accounts and trial balances, so that we can see what the company has done with their profits for the past three years. We have asked for leave pay, and they have rejected our request for bonuses.” 

In spite of the strike, the company is flourishing. It received a silver award for its achievements in the 2021 National Automobile Dealers Association Dealer Satisfaction Index. The award comes after the company received a bronze in 2019 and another award in 2018 for the “most improved commercial vehicle brand”.

FAW hadn’t responded at the time of publication to emails sent to them on the allegations levelled against them by the workers. 

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Sibongile Portia Jonas
Sibongile Portia Jonas is a journalist based in the Eastern Cape.

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