Abengoa Solar's KaXu Solar One power plant in Northern Cape province, South Africa. Photo: Abengoa Solar

Workers strike at South African solar plant

15.03.2018

Ninety members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) from Abengoa Solar’s power plant in the Northern Cape are on strike to demand higher wages and benefits.

According to IndustriALL Global Union affiliate, NUMSA, workers are being denied medical aid, housing allowance, provident fund and other benefits they would normally receive if they were working at the state-owned electricity provider, Eskom. Their wages, which are low, are being spent on covering all these expenses.

The strike is significant as South Africa moves to renewable energy production to lower carbon emissions as a signatory to the Paris Accord on climate change. At present most electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations employing tens of thousands of workers in the coal industry.

However, NUMSA is concerned that the transition to renewable energy does not include provisions for workers set to lose their jobs in coal, or lead to wider benefits to the community:

“The Energy Minister claimed that these (renewable energy) firms would bring ‘entrepreneurial opportunities in our rural communities’. Our members can confirm that this is hogwash. There is very little development and certainly no opportunities for entrepreneurship in the surrounding area of the firm,” said NUMSA in a statement.

On 12 March NUMSA, together with Transform SA, successfully applied for a court interdict to block Eskom from signing 27 renewable energy contracts known as Independent Power Production Projects (IPPs).

NUMSA says it is not against renewable energy but is alarmed by proposals from the government to put renewable energy production entirely in private hands through IPPs. As well as putting the South African public at the mercy of private companies in setting energy prices, the privatization of renewable energy leaves no room for a Just Transition for workers losing their jobs in the coal industry.

Brian Kohler, IndustriALL’s director for health, safety and sustainability, said:

“South Africa must not relinquish its responsibility for the energy of the future, nor turn its back on tens of thousands of workers in the coal industry. A Just Transition requires strong and comprehensive social protection; sustainable industrial policy; and creative labour adjustment programmes.”

“There is nothing inherent about greener jobs that guarantees fairness – they will all follow the logic of capitalism if the state does not impose conditions and limits on their behaviour,” added Kohler.