Petrol: Haggling over wages

After one hour of work, most petrol attendants can just afford to buy themselves a loaf of bread. Earning R5,07 per hour, (R4,11 in small towns), petrol attendants clock in as the lowest paid workers in Numsa (excluding those in the old homelands). But raising their wages to a living wage is not such an easy thing to do because of the regulated petrol price. Jenny Grice takes a look at the issues.

Unlike almost all other goods, government regulates the selling price of petrol. For petrol station owners, this means that from each litre of petrol they sell, they can only get the equivalent of a fixed amount, known as the dealers' margin.

Government sets the dealer's margin each year. To calculate what this margin should be, the Department of Minerals and Energy does a study each year of 100 service stations of different sizes, across rural and urban areas.

This study assesses their financial positions for the previous financial year from March 1 to February 28.

It calculates what the average service station sold, and what the average costs were for that petrol station.

These costs include petrol attendants' wages, their uniform, employers' contributions to pension/ provident fund, UIF, bargaining council levy, skills development levy'.

It also calculates the average cost to petrol station owners of carrying out forecourt activities like buying cleaning materials, bank charges, audit fees, advertisements, the owner's salary (but only the time that he spends on the forecourt).

It then recommends whether petrol station owners should be given an increase in the dealer's margin and how much that increase should be.

"The payment is always based on historical figures," explains Herman Thom, Senior Bestuurskonsultant for the Adviesburo vir Kleinsakeondernemings based at Potchefstroom University – the institution that carries out the study for government. In other words, employers are re-imbursed for expenses that they have incurred the previous year.

To cushion the effects, government usually gives petrol station owners a provisional adjustment in March, at the beginning of the next financial year and then pays them the balance after the study has been completed. Last year petrol station owners received a dealer margin increase of 2.579 cents per litre.

The study for the 2002/3 financial year is currently on the go. Government has already granted petrol station owners a provisional increase in March this year of 2.6 cents to cover last year's expenses.

According to Thom, they plan to have this study finished by the middle of June in the hope that government will grant the balance of the increase in July.

There is nothing stopping trade unions from pushing employers to grant their petrol attendants an increase, but "petrol station owners will only be rewarded at the end of the year," says Thom. "They will have to fork out that increase before they get the increased margin."

Last year, Numsa managed to get a massive 18% increase for petrol attendants in the small towns.

"It was negotiated as part of phasing out the two areas and replacing them with just one area," says Sam Tsiane, Numsa's motor sector negotiator.

And if this massive increase was agreed last year, then what is stopping Numsa from negotiating an equally big increase this year?


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