Port strikes closer after union and government disagree

Sep 4, 2003
Author: P&S

The possibility of industrial strike action at South African ports moved a bit closer today (4 September) when the South African Transport & Allied Workers Union (Satawu), representing a majority of port workers, said that it wished to place on record that the statement from the cabinet earlier this week concerning the status of talks between the two was misleading.

“No agreement has been reached between government and labour on job security in the event of privatisation. Labour has proposed a guarantee of five years job security, subject to additional securities for the most vulnerable sections of the workforce (notably those in their middle years).
Government has proposed three years job security.”

Satawu added that labour has not agreed to the principle of concessioning. “On the contrary, all the figures shared with labour indicate that not only is there no need to privatise in order to meet investment requirements, but that concessioning the container terminals will actually jeopardise the viability of those terminals remaining under Sapo for the foreseeable future.”

Satawu said that government had not agreed to engage further on the investment requirements. Instead, at the last Ports Restructuring Committee (PRC) held on 29th August, government officials emphatically stated that they have nothing further to add on investment requirements.

“Indeed they argued that investment requirements are now an insignificant factor in government's decision to concession.”

The union says that the logic of government’s argument in favour of privatisation boils down to “the private sector will do it better” and says this position is contrary to the provisions of the terms of reference of the PRC, the National Framework Agreement, and ANC policy on the restructuring of state-owned enterprises.

“Satawu has never denied that there is room for efficiency improvements in SA Port Operations, but does not believe in the magic of the private sector to achieve these efficiencies.”

The union said that it believes that Cabinet may have been misled about port restructuring developments. “We suspect that government officials are busy hiding the inadequacy of their own arguments and rationale for pushing concessioning as the appropriate form of restructuring. If this is the case, this will not be the first time that Cabinet has been misled on the matter. Recently a presentation to Cabinet was made by officials, which inflated investment requirements of SA Port Operations over the next two years by 50%. On the basis of this Cabinet has in principle unnecessarily committed over R300m of the fiscus to SAPO. What kind of madness is this?”

At its recent congress Satawu declared that, based on information provided, SAPO has the capacity to meet its investment requirements in the future and private sector investment was not necessary.

Satawu also expressed a strong concern while the container terminals at the ports were profitable, the multi purpose terminals and some others were not.

“This demonstrates cross-subsidisation within SA Port Operations. The removal of the container terminals from SA Port Operations, starting with the Durban Container Terminal, is likely to result in unmanageable pressures on the remaining terminals and the likelihood of a decline in service, eventual mass retrenchments and a downward pressure on working conditions.”

The union repeated the call made by Satawu’s Congress last week that “government should take its concessioning proposals off the table while returning to a proper substantiated engagement with Labour, which pays attention to the need to keep our ports integrated. The same position was put clearly to government as a joint Labour position (Satawu, Utatu and Uasa) on 29th August.”

Other concerns of Satawu include there being no guarantee of access to Transnet’s HIV/Aids programme for privatised terminals, or to the Transnet Social Plan, the allocation of 3 % of wage bills to training, and travel concessions. In addition it feared that privatisation of SA Port Operations would result in the lowering of safety standards as a result of fragmented resources and focus.

According to the Department of Public Enterprises, there have been 12 meetings with the unions during which government presented its argument in favour of private sector involvement in the operation of port terminals. Resulting from these meetings the Ports Restructuring Committee (PRC) had been formed which met and discussed government’s plans.

In terms of these discussions government says it has clearly explained to labour why it is unable to invest adequately in port infrastructure in order to improve the efficiency of the ports. As part of that discussion the question of job security had been addressed, together with promises to retain and protect all bargaining arrangements.

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