Eastern Cape building workers left high and dry

| Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik and GroundUp staff
Mdantsane residents protested earlier this month about the quality, speed and management of an RDP housing project. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

Some 20,000 building workers in the Eastern Cape are not covered by any minimum wage agreement.

The continuing strike of Siyavuna employees in Mdantsane has highlighted the plight of construction workers who are not covered either by a bargaining council agreement or by a minimum wage set by the Department of Labour.

The workers, who have been on strike since last month, say bricklayers are making R1,000 a month and assistants R400. They are demanding at least R100 a day.

Theo Verschuur, secretary to the Building Industry Bargaining Council in the southern and eastern Cape, said none of the regions in the Eastern Cape were covered by a minimum wage agreement for the building industry. He estimated at 20,000 the number of workers concerned.

The last bargaining council agreement in East London had expired in 2003 and in Port Elizabeth in 2001, Verschuur said.

Since then, the industry had relied on “shop floor” bargaining at company level.

Many employers paid wages linked to the old collective agreements and continued to contribute to the various social benefits provided by the Bargaining Councils in the region. The Master Builders’ Association — the employers’ association — recommended annual increases to members after consulting trade unions, he said.

Thembinkosi Mkalipi, Chief Director of Labour Relations in the Department of Labour, confirmed that no agreement had been negotiated by the bargaining councils for years.

In 2014 the department had conducted public hearings with a view to establishing a sectoral determination setting wages and working conditions for construction workers in the region, but the plan had been shelved in view of the proposed national minimum wage.

The government has launched a nationwide consultation on a national minimum wage, across all sectors of the economy, as a baseline. The national minimum wage would apply where there are no other minimum wage agreements.

Asked why the department had not launched the sectoral determination process earlier, since the bargaining council agreements had expired more than ten years ago, Mkalipi said the department prioritised vulnerable workers in sectors where there were no trade unions.

The construction sector had a history of collective bargaining, he said. “Where there are no trade unions, workers are more likely to be vulnerable.”

Eddie Cottle, of the Labour Research Service, which helped the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) respond to the Department of Labour’s call for input on a sectoral determination in 2014, said the national minimum wage process was not the real reason why the plan had been shelved.

“The Department of Labour pulled the rug out of a long standing struggle by trade unions to merge the civil engineering and building sectors due to pressure from employers,” he said.

In its submission the NUM recommended a single bargaining process for civil engineering and building; a thorough review of job grades, wages and benefits in the construction sector; a reduction in working hours for construction workers to 40 a week without loss of pay; an increase in annual leave from 15 to 21 days; an annual bonus equivalent to 21 days pay; and retirement funds and medical aid for all employees.

NUM East London regional Chairperson Buyile Jikeka said most building workers were temporary which made it difficult for unions to organise them. He said the NUM had about 12,000 members in the Eastern Cape.

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TOPICS:  Government Labour

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