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South African engineering workers on strike for living wages after failed negotiations

6 October, 2021Tens of thousands of workers employed in the engineering and metals sectors took to the streets of the main cities ­ - Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Kimberley - on 5 October to demand living wages in the sectors after a deadlock in the negotiations.

In Johannesburg, the workers marched to the Metal Engineering and Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) offices where they presented a petition of their demands. Employers represented in the MEIBC include the National Employers Association of South Africa (NEASA), Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (SEIFSA), and the South Africa Engineers and Founders Association (SAEFA).

Bargaining councils are part of South Africa’s industrial relations system and their responsibilities include resolving disputes and facilitating collective bargaining agreements between trade unions and employers.

The workers went on the indefinite strike after negotiations failed to award them a wage increase of 8 per cent that they are demanding. Instead, the employers offered 4.4 per cent which IndustriALL Global Union affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) says is an “insult” to the workers. Initially, NUMSA wanted a 15 per cent wage increase.


“The employers cannot offer us 4.4 per cent when last year we got nothing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Workers lost jobs through retrenchments, and others were put on short time work in which they lost income as they were paid less than their regular wages. Hence, we are firmly behind our union in the demands for higher wage increases,” argues one of the strikers.

Irvin Jim, NUMSA general secretary says:

“We are on an indefinite strike until our demands are met. We will not allow the super exploitation of labour in the engineering sector to continue unchallenged. The decision to strike was arrived at after the failure of protracted negotiations in which employers tabled a pitiful offer, thus frustrating the workers."

“Through this strike action we are demanding living wages for the engineering workers. This is the time for unity in action. We are not going to beg for living wages; we are demanding them,”

reiterated Andrew Chirwa, NUMSA president.

“Workers in the engineering sector made significant contributions to keep the industry afloat during Covid-19, enduring wage cuts and short working hours. Sanity must prevail upon employers to improve on their current offer,”

says Mawonga Madolo, metals sector coordinator, from another IndustriALL affiliated union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), in a solidarity message for the strike.

“Covid-19 has caused retrenchments and created precarious working conditions which impoverished workers in the engineering and metal sectors. With workers facing these hardships, employers must be sensitive to their plight and ensure that the workers do not further lose the value of their wages. The employers must pay wage increases towards living wages,”

says Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa.

NUMSA is arguing that with workers being part of economic recovery, they deserve to be paid living wages. With the South African Covid-19 lockdown regulations being eased to Alert level 1 which has the least restrictions for industrial activities, the economy is expected to start recovering after an annual growth rate of 4.6 per cent in the first quarter which further increased in the second quarter according to Statistics South Africa.

The country is following global trends in which the recovery in the sectors has been far stronger and faster than expected at the beginning of the pandemic. Additionally, high global commodity prices of metals that include platinum, gold and iron ore are also contributing to the economic recovery.