Restructuring at a workplace brings many changes to the way things work and to workers' working conditions.
Hlokoza Motau spoke to a woman team leader in a motor electrical workplace with 18 years of experience at that company, to shed light on how restructuring has affected workers at her company and the union.
What problems was your company experiencing before it restructured?
We were having problems with competition, poor performance, lack of work discipline and there was no direction and vision. We were just working.
What changes were brought about to improve efficiency?
The company implemented training. Training was given to shopstewards, supervisors and foremen so that they can motivate workers to increase performance. Production increased after this training.
What were the contents of the training and how many shopstewards participated in the training.We were trained on motivation, leadership, time study, boosting & time-keeping, etc. 3 shopstewards participated.
What changes were made to machines?
They replaced the old machines with new ones, serviced and repaired the old ones.
What changes were made to working methods?
We now assess our work every hour. Workers keeps figures of their own production. Assessment helps us to identify bottlenecks and problems. Before we used to be told at the end of the week that we have not reached the target.
Any changes to shifts and hours of work and what has happened to production? We are still working 40 hours but those areas where we have bottlenecks they are working 6 – 6 Monday to Friday. Production has gone up with less labour.
Has there been any improvement in terms of workers' skills and changes to management structures?
There have been no changes to skills of workers. No changes have taken place in management structures except that supervisors are now called team leaders but their work content has not changed.
Team leaders are now paid on a weekly basis instead of a monthly basis like before. Some supervisors were demoted to operators but their pay was not taken away.
No changes have taken place with foremen, who are nine with one woman. The majority of the foremen are white.
What work do foremen do?
They do nothing. They just instruct us and we do the work for them.
How much are foremen paid?R14 000 per month and we are paid R4000 as team leaders. What is surprising is that they have just promoted a team leader to a foreman but he is paid only R5000.00. The woman foreman is also paid R5000.00.
What do engineers and technicians do?
They just walk around or stay in their offices. Sometimes you will have a breakdown for 2 weeks without them being able to repair the machine. You will see them crowding around a machine for 3 days without any progress.
They sit in their offices and when there is breakdown, you write a job card and take it to them. Because we are untrained we do not always specify the problem correctly.
But when they pitch up at the machine, they ask you 'how do you repair that machine when it breaks down?'
But do you think the management structures should be reviewed?Yes, we want the levels to be reduced because the gap between shopfloor and senior management is huge. Communication loses its effect on the way.
Did any major retrenchments take place during this period of restructuring?
In 1996 they retrenched 200 workers. They also embarked on natural attrition and voluntary retrenchment.
What outsourcing took place?
The company outsourced the Fleet Department. A former shopsteward and another worker now run the department.
The company gave them space. They hired their own workers because our company absorbed workers in that dept. The workers in that department are paid less than our workers. They also want to outsource the Foundry because of absenteeism and poor performance.
How is the situation of the company now?
Our company is growing, it is strong and it can now compete against international companies. Workers are committed and productive. We are exporting to various countries.
The evidence that we are growing is that we have created jobs for more than 100 people since July. There is strong demand for our products and the company is talking to us about introducing shift work.
Why there is strong demand for your products? We are strong because our products are of high quality and can be repaired. Our competitors were cheaper and had no good quality.
How have workers benefited from this restructuring?
Maybe we have benefited with job security. But there are no incentives from our hard work. When management is happy we are given burghers and chips to thank us. Workers think they should be given incentives for good performance.
Were shopstewards able to engage management over this restructuring?
Shopstewards were unable to deal with management over these changes. Management did what they wanted. They tried to respond to the situation but all those attempts failed.
They proposed short time and last in – first out but this failed. Workers had no direction during this process. Workers who were eventually retrenched lost faith in the union and engaged their own lawyers to take the company to court. They lost the case.
Was it easy to get the union organiser to support shopstewards during this process?
No, not at all. It was very difficult. Sometimes they will tell us he is in Port Elizabeth, sometimes somewhere else.
Do you have a workplace skills plan, equity plan or an HIV-AIDS policy?No, no, we do not have such things. It seems shopstewards have not been given any guidelines around these issues especially because we have changed some of the shopstewards.
How is the situation of the union now?
The Union is just a union, it is not effective. It did not support us when supervisors were changed into operators and changed from monthly paid to weekly paid. Also shopstewards used to fight among themselves.
They opposed each other during report backs meeting. The situation was normalised when we refused to elect a full-time shopsteward because of this infighting among them. Another is that they always come and tell us what management wants without allowing us the chance to negotiate.
Can you give us examples of what you are saying?
We wanted to strike against electronic gates which strictly control our movements. The union told us not to strike but to firstly assess its impact on us. We are now suffering because of the gate.
We clock out when we go to the toilet or to the canteen. If you don't want to lose money, then you must go to the toilet during lunch, which is very difficult. Sometimes the service is poor at the canteen and you lose out on your wages. We usually work from 12h00 to 16h15 without any breaks and this makes our life difficult.
The other problem is that shop stewards told us that this year we will close for annual holidays on the 12 December instead of the usual date of the 6 December. They told us without asking us.
They are also trying to force us to accept to work 7 days per week. The problem with the proposal is that Saturday and Sunday will be paid as normal although we will still keep to the 40 hours. It will force us to work for 12 hours per day sometimes.
The shopstewards motivate this proposal on the basis that it will create jobs but they don't tell us how many jobs.
Our union is very weak. We do not have reasons why we are still in the union although we have motivated the new workers to all join the union because it might protect us in the future.