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South African state utility hit hard by strikes

14 March, 2013Strikes at the construction site of its new power station Medupi and at coal operations of Exxaro Resources add to power company Eskom’s woes to address power supply challenges.

Poor industrial relations are contributing to the already long delays in completing Medupi needed to address power supply concerns in the country, with the first power from the station still expected to come on line by the end of the year. Strike action started in January when some workers protested the calculation of their year end bonuses. Workers are also unhappy with some of the terms of the project labour agreement.

Eskom responded by closing the site shortly after the strike started, which worsened the situation as others joined in aggrieved by the lockout, an action that was challenged in court by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). The strike has had some violent protests and a number of workers have been arrested.

Unions organising at Medupi, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Numsa, reached an agreement with site contractors, through the intervention of the Minister of Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba. Eskom ended the lockout on 6 March. However failure to meet the terms of the agreement resulted in workers downing tools again, days after the agreement which was signed on 8 March.

Eskom’s power supply is facing a more immediate threat, having to rely on coal stockpiles as a result of unprotected strikes at six coal mines of one of its major suppliers Exxaro Resources. More than 3,500 coal miners have downed tools as they did not receive their bonuses, usually paid in February, on the basis that production targets have not been met.

The NUM supports the demands of striking Exxaro workers as they were not made aware of production targets and bonuses at the company have never been linked to targets in the past. The strike, if not resolved quickly, could affect three stations that generate 20 per cent of South Africa’s power.