Law + worker power = victory

Law + worker power = victory

When ABB Powertech Transformers (ABB PT) put more than 50 of its temporary employees under a labour broker, without their consent, Numsa was able to combine the law with workers’ power to enforce the employer to change his mind. Sekome Onismas Tshoga* tells us how.

The battle scene was set during 2001, when the company signed an agreement with Numsa to retrench about 150 employees. The company also agreed that in the event vacancies arise, the retrenchees would be given first preference. This would be done within the spirit of the Metal and Engineering Industries Main Agreement, Annexure A. This deals with security of employment.

At the beginning of 2002, the company re-employed about 54 retrenchees under the Limited Duration Contract (LDC) as per the retrenchment agreement as well as Annexure ‘A’ of the MEIBC Main Agreement.

However, towards the end of 2002, the company engaged Numsa to see if it would allow them to put their employees under the labour broker when their contracts expired at the end of December 2002.

Unfortunately, during the negotiations it became clear that the company had already taken a decision to sub-contract and/or outsource these employees. In fact they had already concluded an agreement with the labour broker without consultation and agreement with the Union .

The company’s response and attitude angered workers. We were left with no option but to declare a dispute of mutual interest.

We based our dispute on the fact that the company had ‘unilaterally put the retrenchees under the labour broker’. Clearly the company had complied with the agreement in re-employing the retrenchees. But then it had unilaterally put them ‘under the labour broker’.

The agreement does not allow the company to put these employees under the labour broker nor does it say anything in that regard.

We took our dispute to the Centre for Dispute Resolution (CDR) in terms of section 64(1)(a) and 134 of the LRA.

During the conciliation meeting, the company could not even raise a point in limine because the commissioner indicated upfront that the dispute is that of mutual interest.

Unfortunately, we were unable to resolve this matter through conciliation. We were left with no option but to issue the company with 48 hours notice of legal strike action, as per the provisions of section 64(1)(b) of the LRA.

The strike action commenced on February 17. Almost all the employees went on strike because they understood that if the company could put these 54 employees under the labour broker, tomorrow all of them would be under the labour broker.

And under the labour broker, conditions are exploitative, there is no security of employment, there are often no social benefits like pension, medical aid, and workers would be moved from one company to another according to the needs of different companies.

The workers’ demands were as follows:

the company to terminate the services of the labour broker
the company to re-employ the retrenchees under the company pay roll
in future the company should consult and agree with the union before concluding an agreement with the labour broker.

At a meeting with the company on February 21 to try and resolve the strike, toyi-toying workers accompanied us. When we entered the meeting, management was placed on the defensive – they had no alternative but to meet workers’ demands.

During the meeting, management representatives gave in to workers’ demands as follows:

The company will terminate the services of the labour broker on seven days notice effective from Monday February 24, 2003 .
Workers who were previously retrenched by the company will remain in the employ of the company in terms of the provisions of the limited duration contract provided for in the Main Agreement.
In future the company shall not engage the services of a labour broker without consultation with the union in order to reach agreement on the issue.
Workers will commence normal production work on February 24, 2003 without any extraneous pressure being placed on them by management.

* Tshoga is a local organiser at Numsa’s Pretoria Central, West local office