Thousands of jobs gone, more to go! Mziwakhe Hlangani

They didn't know it was to be their last moving show of solidarity, camaraderie and freedom chanting when Jurgens Caravan workers toyi-toyied at their factory general meeting.

Unknown to them, management had ordered that 98 of these toyi-toying workers be put on the list of those to be retrenched only hours earlier in the executive management meeting discussing restructuring.

Tens of thousands of metalworkers’ jobs have been lost and short time is escalating. 150 motor dealerships have been liquidated as the downward spiral sinks deeper in the motor, components and metal and engineering industries.

Other companies are considering changes to shift work patterns, while most of those on contracts bear the brunt of cutbacks as they are not eligible for retrenchment packages.

The scale of retrenchments

Sector Number of retrenchments Number on short-time Jan 2009 Factory closures

Engineering 3000 13 500 (official) 12 between late last year and Jan 2009Motor and components 36000 since July last year unknown 150 companies liquidatedAuto manufacturing 1700 – but more to come

Nothing justifies the severity of the measures taken by the industry management.

They took advantage of the situation through job shedding, wage and benefit cuts, instead of making the first move working in conjunction with government and labour to ensure the implementation of a vibrant industrial strategy which is not only concerned with improving the rates of profit for the capitalist class, but also about jobs and economic growth.

One company with a winning formula!Mziwakhe Hlangani

In the midst of the gloom and despair of retrenchments, short-time and layoffs, one company partly owned by internationally renowned labour movement struggle hero Jay Naidoo, is countering this hopelessness.

Rail commuter coaches’ manufacturer, Union Carriage and Wagon (UCW) in Nigel, East Rand, is benefiting from government's infrastructure programme. It has secured a contract to make the Gautrain coaches and workers' futures seem secure for the next five to ten years.

The employees, who are predominantly Numsa members, have benefited immensely from the new company ownership, a fledgling employment equity plan and skills training.

After two completed Electrostar rail cars were shipped from Derby locomotive assembly plant in England to Nigel, modern white carriages featuring gold and blue stripes, side panels and doors have become the first Gautrain rail cars to be locally manufactured.

Former Numsa shop steward Jabulane Mfene (pictured) was one of 17 black employees to be offered advanced skills training in Derby, England.

Having undergone further instruction on body sides, floor and panel-building, Mfene is now responsible for producing the same quality Electrostar rail cars as those manufactured at the world-class Bombardier Transportation assembly plant in Derby, UK.

The 16 other black trainees from Nigel, have since returned to take over positions as foremen, electrical technicians, mechanical engineering and door fitting technicians, posts traditionally held by white artisans. Numsa chief shop steward in UCW, Kamgelo Masike is upbeat about the company's growth prospects and profitability which now boasts 1 400 employees from only 300 in 2007.

KZN Metals Bargaining Council tackles job crisis

Woody Aroun

As Numsa prepares for its national job summit in March, regional initiatives to tackle the retrenchment bloodbath that have besieged the unions have not gone unnoticed.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) and Numsa convened a regional stakeholder forum on February 26 to discuss the crisis and chart a way forward. Eastern Cape and Western Cape have also held similar meetings.

Alistair Smith the CEO of the MEIBC confirmed that short-time had significantly increased in January 2009 compared to the same period in 2008: According to the MEIBC, some 1200 employees from about 89 companies were put on short time in January 2008; by February 2008 the number of employees on short time had increased to about 3000 (150 companies); in January 2009 a staggering 13480 employees (from about 255 companies) were on short-time. Smith anticipates that the numbers will increase and that more and more companies are likely to apply for exemptions from the bargaining council.

Ironically, Smith noted that the “biggest problem confronting the bargaining council was not over wages, but shifts towards labour flexibility, increasing use of labour brokers and outsourcing”.

Professor Dennis Brutus from the Centre of Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal told delegates attending the forum that he found it “shocking” that ministers in the South African government did more to “satisfy the requirements of the global economy” and international finance institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, rather than to address the needs of its people.

Professor Brutus found it equally disturbing that “while the corporate sector now called on taxpayers to bail it out” from its economic woes, bosses were still giving themselves huge bonuses while thousands of retrenched workers joined the long queues of the unemployed.

Speaking on behalf of the employers, Henk Duys pointed out that it was critical for all parties – business, labour and government to communicate and share ideas with each other in an attempt to minimize retrenchments and to increase the productive and competitive capacity of our engineering and metal sectors.

Mbuso Ngubane, the regional secretary of Numsa KZN told delegates that it was not unusual for capitalists to find themselves in a crisis such as this and that classical Marxist thinkers have historically alluded to the collapse of the free market system.

However, Ngubane welcomed the initiative by the MEIBC to hold such a forum and called for some frank talk between all the stakeholders on the thorny issue of labour brokers, a moratorium on job losses and job creation.

While gurus debate whether this crisis signals the end of the free market economy, others are more cautious and warn that the era of capitalism is far from over.

Hopefully, the wisdom of Professor Brutus will brush off on all those free marketeers who have benefited from the capitalist system: “How are we going to negotiate our way forward from all this suffering and joblessness?

All over the world, come hell or high water there is a ruthless determination by some to make money … So the crunch point for government has come – Patching it [the crisis] is not good enough. We need a more equitable, more just society … a decent life for everyoneâ€.


Numsa News