Engineering: Companies scoff at Engineering Agreement

Although a collective agreement now covers all engineering workplaces across the country, some workers are discovering the difficulties of enforcing it. Mbuso Mchunu and Jenny Grice report.

For years Steelkor Windows and Door hid outside the ‘old South Africa ‘ and in so doing avoided paying the wage rates set down by the Engineering Main Agreement. But when it finally moved into Ladysmith in August this year, it should have raised its wage rates to those laid down by the Main Agreement. Last year, factory owner, J. Singh, did give his workers a 40% wage raise. This year he applied to the Bargaining Council for an exemption from paying the 2003 increase, but was refused. Even the Independent Appeal Board upheld the Council’s decision. Subsequently the employer unilaterally offered workers a 20% increase. This amounted to a R20 per week increase. Even so, it was still way below the wage rates required in terms of the Main Agreement. Three days later, workers downed tools calling this increase “an insult”.

Defending his wage offer, Singh said that, “It is not that I don’t want to comply with the agreement. I can’t afford to increase the wages to 60% of the Main Agreement rates. I am faced with a market battle against firms like Ailiff in Durban and some others in Newcastle and Estcourt who are not compelled by the Council to register and who are paying below my rates. I have given the workers a 20% increase and now they kick me in the teeth.”

Workers from their side claim that the relocation of the factory has increased their transport costs. “We want 60% of the Main Agreement rates and nothing else,” they said.

The Council has now asked the Labour Court to make its decision a court order.

Meanwhile, Chinese owned company Bon Voyage, is also testing its workers and the Bargaining Council. Bon Voyage has never complied with the Main Agreement. When the Council tried to serve a summons ordering the employer to attend arbitration proceedings, the employer refused to accept it.

The Bargaining Council has now written to the Deputy Sheriff of the High Court. It told the Deputy Sheriff of both Numsa’s and the arbitrator concerns, including the company’s delaying tactics.

Free State

And in Thaba Nchu and Botshabelo in the Free State, workers and organisers are equally frustrated as companies claim that they just ‘can’t pay’ the new rates.

Nu World Enamel in Thaba Nchu that made enamel plates, mugs has now closed down. The owner claimed that their customers were in Africa and raising the wage rates was not economically viable.
Nu Sun (part of Nu World Enamel) has requested an exemption from paying 60% of the main agreement rates.
Botshabelo primus stove maker Tao Ying is paying 40% of the Agreement. Although it has paid workers backpay for their overtime hours that the company never previously rewarded, it has now asked for to pay 40% of the Main Agreement rates for the next 10 years.

“Most of the companies in these areas export to the rest of Africa ,” says regional organiser, Johannes Hlalele. “They want to take their machinery to Botswana which is nearer to their market. If we pressurise them, they will leave.”