Durban port crippled by strikes

Sep 20, 2004
Author: P&S

The port of Durban has been hit by a series of strikes involving hundreds of casual dock labourers.

Disruption to work at all terminals within the port is being reported and SA Port Operations (SAPO) reports that violence and intimidation of permanent workers both on and off the port premises has hampered SAPO’s ability to put in place contingency plans.

September is normally one of the busiest times in the port, which may have formed part of the strikers’ plans. According to Mr Steven Matlou, SAPO executive manager Human Resources, the unrest which started at the Maydon Wharf terminal early last week (Monday) has spread to all the organisation’s Durban terminals.

“The strike does not include SAPO employees and is beyond our control. We have also served court interdicts on the strikers in an attempt to stop the intimidation but to no avail,” he said.

According to some reports violence last week included gunshots fired into the side of a light delivery vehicle at the port. Other claims talk of workers being forced out of warehouses and off ships.

Several stevedore companies confirmed the strike was affecting their operations.

“We’re managing to work our ships but not at the normal pace,” said one who asked to remain anonymous. “Interdicts are only so good - it’s easy to make people afraid to come to work; all it takes is a phone call that reaches into the terminal.”

P&O Nedlloyd shipping company issued a statement today (Monday) advising that operations with one of their container vessels in port, P&O Nedlloyd Accra had been affected. “There is no firm indication when stability will be achieved,” it stated.

Fears are being expressed among port users that an escalation in violence may force the port to go to Level 2 of the recently introduced International Ships and Ports Security Code (ISPS), which would have serious international ramifications for Durban. The cost of the unrest is estimated to reach hundreds of thousands of rands daily.

The port manager, Mr Basil Ndlovu told Ports & Ships this evening that apart from an incursion at Maydon Wharf last week strikers had since remained out of the harbour. He claimed the fenced off areas had not experienced any trouble, although a senior stevedore pointed out that it only took a phone call from outside to have an affect on the labour force even within the safety of a fence. “They know where the workers catch their trains or buses, they know where they live. Of course workers feel intimidated,” he said

Matlou said that several meetings had been held this year with the unions to discuss the issues related to the difference in wages and working conditions set out by the various stevedoring companies which serviced SAPO. Further meetings with all industry players as well as the National Department of Transport were scheduled for 4 and 5 October, but it seemed that the unions are trying to fast track the process and are using SAPO as leverage, he said.

SAPO said that while business unit managers were continuing to work ships it was not at an optimum pace. Ship turnaround times were increasing while production and productivity was low.

Ports & Ships spoke with one union, UTATU which said it was not involved and knew little about any strike action. The local representative for another union representing the majority of permanent port workers, SATAWU, could not be reached this afternoon or tonight (Monday).

However Ports & Ships understands that the strike is the result of an unofficial union claiming to represent casual labourers who were formerly part of the National Dock Labour Scheme (NDLS). This union, led by Willy Cirah, wants the NDLS, which was closed in 2001 to be reinstated.

The casual workers, who were using nearby Congella Park to assemble, claim that being forced to apply for work through labour brokers prevents them from having any job security. They say the levels of pay are poor and maintain that labour brokers tell them there are plenty of others seeking work if they are not satisfied.

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