South Africa: Ten years of Democracy

Wentworth and the South Durban industrial basin: Umbilical like to "The Refinery"

Tuesday 20 January 2004, by Peter DWYER

Forget the Soaps! It’s the daily grind of ’normal’ life for working class communities and workers that make compelling drama in post-apartheid South Africa.

Much has been made of late of the notion of two countries in one. Yet this is one country characterised by combined and uneven development and gross unequal distribution of wealth. A country in which industry, labour and working class communities collide on a daily basis. All dependent on each other yet all treated unequally. A country in which, as in Wentworth, families live amidst unemployment of 50 per cent, the sole bread winner supports up to seven people, asthma rates are double the global average, yet living next to an industry in which it is not unusual for a CEO to earn over 6 million a year.

Allegations of environmental degradation, a history of sour relations between owners of "The Refinery", as locals call it, and labour and community groups are the backdrop to this normal story. A story that began when eight maintenance fitters were given a surprise pay rise of R10.98 an hour during the first week of June 2003 by their employers Brown and Root Group Five who provide the core maintenance at the ENGEN refinery in Wentworth, South Durban.

Also surprised was the Construction, Engineering and Industrial Workers Union (CEIWU-an independent union) and the other fitter who, along with 200 maintenance workers’, got no pay rise. Especially as for the previous 6 months, in a partnership building exercise, CEIWU had been holding monthly meetings with management and would have expected to be informed about the pay rise.

In a fascinating example of worker and non-racial solidarity the (mainly white) eight workers told CEIWU of this unexpected act of philanthropy, coming as it did, one month before the annual industrial bargaining council wage negotiations. Management confirmed the pay rise was given ’to retain staff’.

Questioning their commitment to the bargaining council and the selective nature of the pay rise CEIWU asked that all maintenance workers be treated equally and given a pay rise. If it is good business practice to dangle pay rises to retain senior managers, in an industry in which some earn over R 6 million a year, why not apply this logic to workers who perform hazardous work in a crucial national refinery? Perhaps sensing they had blundered, management offered to take back the pay rise but CEIWU advised them that this would be tantamount to unfair labour practices.

In accordance with the Labour Relations Act (LRA) CEIWU obtained a certificate of ’no resolution’ on the 4 August. Mandated by their members they balloted for strike action and an overwhelming majority voted to strike (union membership grew during the dispute). On 1 September CEIWU gave notice, more than required by the LRA, of their intention to strike and it commenced peacefully and without fuss on 11 September.

Whilst in negotiations ’scab labour’ was employed, workers were asked to break the strike and in contravention of the LRA the company told workers on 30 September they must return to work on 1 October or face dismissal and individually justify in writing why they should not be dismissed. Showing that they had already intended to dismiss the workers they informed CEIWU that they wanted to meet on 1 October to discuss the dismissal on 3 October. Again CEIWU informed them they were violating the LRA.

CEIWU called for a meeting on 6 October to resolve the dispute and after a deadlock in negotiations, and showing the best practices of accountability, they asked their members for direction. In a remarkable show of restraint workers demanded more negotiations.

Whilst still in negotiations the company sent a letter (in the evening) to the CEIWU offices expressing their intention to dismiss the workers. On 7 October 184 workers on a legal strike were dismissed illegally. On 10 November the Labour court ruled that all the workers must be taken back as employers can not terminate employment as a way of breaking legal strikes.

This ordinary story does not end there. The workers have not yet been taken back. With two months lost pay affecting up to 1000 people, in an area where unemployment reaches 50 percent and asthma levels are double the global average, this unnecessary dispute has exacerbated community and labour problems. A palpable sense of anxiety engulfs the community. At a mass meeting, community groups reported of families agonising how to feed themselves, pay school fees and fear for the future of their community connected, as it is, umbilical like to "The Refinery".

In an era of supposed good corporate governance this is perhaps an example of not what to do. Yet perhaps things may be about to change? After joint community and labour pressure, ENGEN refinery General Manager Wayne Hartmann, to his credit, has committed himself to meeting the local community at regular quarterly public meetings and monthly meetings with representatives of labour and community based organisations.

These meetings are likely to take on an added importance in the future for despite showing a commitment to building a partnership with management, stacks of good will, restraint and despite following the letter of the law, as the government continue to ’de-regulate’ the oil industry ENGEN have signalled that they intend to "re-asses" their operations. This will, in all likely-hood, result in retrenchments of many of those very same workers. "No matter what it takes we are going to stand by the strikers because they are our community" said one woman at the joint mass meeting between workers and local residents 2 weeks ago and indeed it seems like community solidarity will be very important in the coming months.

Solidarity is central in such working class communities as worker and community issues are intricately entwined. Such is the quality of the air in Wentworth and the South Durban industrial basin (an area that generates approximately 9 per cent of South Africa’s GDP) that locals joke how when they go to another part of the city or country, they think the air there is polluted because they do not recognise the smell of clean air.

It is little wonder then that the public meetings with Wayne Hartmann have been welcomed by unions and community groups alike, although not before time. As CEIWU President, Allan Moolman, said at the mass meeting, "Can anyone remember when there wasn’t a time when you didn’t hear about bad relations, can anyone remember when you didn’t hear about strikes, when you didn’t hear about pollution? I can’t and I have lived here for twenty nine years."

This Story was first Published on the Natal University Center for Civil Society website.

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