Fighting against the treadmill

Fighting against the treadmill

Hlokoza Motau

“It is simple”, explains one shop steward from a tyre manufacturing company, “you conduct a time study on a particular section or machine with the involvement of the union and the workers in that section. You produce the results which are circulated to all.

You invite the union and workers to make representations. New standards and targets are decided after this ‘democratic process’. The union normally does not comment. Workers who are unable to meet the new targets are counseled and dismissed because companies pressurize lower management to meet the new targets”.

This was just one shop steward describing the pressures they face at work to keep up with production targets. Other shop stewards from Daimler Chrysler, Bosch, August Laepple, Ford, BMW, Dunlop, Johnson Control, Festo, Nissan and other companies told Numsa News of similar practices:* Extreme work intensity and pace resulting from increased loading of tasks.

Companies say workers are loaded at 95% to 100% and must meet performance targets set by industrial engineers. Dismissals and discipline on poor performance are used to enforce the new targets. It is difficult to defend given the ‘scientific’ method used in setting these targets.*

Numbers of workers in sections are reduced but the performance targets remain the same and are often increased* The assembly line is speeded up without consultation with shop stewards* There are ergonomic problems resulting in wrist injuries, back and muscle pains and other musco-skeletal injuries.One worker told of the consequences of these practices on the shopfloor.

There is increased absenteeism, fatigue, restlessness, drunkenness and frustration. He explains that in his company workers downed tools in protest against the company's decision to reduce the number of workers without conducting a work study. However when they eventually did conduct one, the results were worse than the earlier decision.

He said management use fancy words to hide the true meaning of the changes. They talk of 'multi-skilling', 'job rotation' or 'combination' when it is just about loading workers with extra work.

Another shop steward told how difficult it is representing workers in particular cases: “Management presents you with piles of “standard time and capacity studies” documents that reflect numerous statistics which you as a shop steward have to decipher to be able to represent the worker effectively. It is difficult to do so.

We end up mumbling all along in the hearing and giving representations which are not convincing.”A Numsa National workshop convened at the beginning of April 2009 considered all these experiences and recommended the following short term measures to deal with the pressures shop stewards and workers are facing:

Short-term measures1. We should demand that work study should be conducted under certain conditions eg company must give reasons for change in the work environment and there should be proper training for workers, etc.2.

Shop stewards should demand to undergo training or take a short course on work study / time study, standard time and capacity studies and time measurement techniques.3. Companies should disclose techniques they use to measure line speed and how the 100% is arrived at, including providing adequate training for shop stewards.4.

Shop stewards should be trained on the line-speed, how it is measured and how it is increased5. Shop stewards should demand the setting up and training of ergonomics committees to re-design jobs that are problematic. The committees should have ergonomic experts sitting with the committee on a monthly basis.

Long term measuresThe workshop recommended that the union should table proposals on work standards which would define for the industry:* what constitutes performance,* the conditions under which work study would be conducted,* that no loading will take place over 100%, * that standards will be established under the basis of fairness and equity and will be based on reasonable capacities of workers working at a normal pace, * that standards will remain unchanged unless effected because of change in methods or equipment* there should be no discipline where standards don’t exist.

These measures will assist shop stewards to protect workers when companies use process engineering to restructure and speed up production.

Pic: A recent Numsa workshop heard how shop stewards battle to oppose management's speeding up of the assembly line

What is there for me?

You tell me to work harder everydayTo handle everything with accountabilityTo be precise and not to wasteTo be productive and quality consciousTo be cooperative and loyalAnd that honesty is the best policyI've tried by all means to do all thatYou know what's boiling in my mindI've tried by all means to uphold all thatWhat's there for meOnly one question

You feel what you pay me is worthThe time I spend working for youYou always question my performance And see space for improvementYou never want to know my concernsBecause you have a business to runMine is to sell my labourAbove all this is what's there for me.

I'm familiar with the theme of your meetings.It always reveals how the figures areAnd that the graph is descending at an alarming rateThat means one thing – my performance is questionableBut you don't let me know if there's progress.Or just say 'thanks we are on target'Or when shareholders are pleased with our annual performanceI ought to know what's there for me.

You restructure, bring new technologyI remain loyal, honest and cooperativeYou employ new people – that's job creationI do my best and show them proceduresWe are developing, we are doing things on a big scaleOur forecast is four times it was yesterday.The return on investments is in harmonyOne thing – what's there for me?

What's there for me to hold on toWhen you are becoming the fastest growing businessWhat's there for me to celebrateWhen you're listed on the stock exchangesWhat's there for me to rememberWhen you compete in the global marketRemember I help you to be self-sustainableI stood by you in times of uncertaintyYou have reached your ultimate goals.I'm still wondering, what's there for me?

Joseph Molusi, Epping, Cape Town


Numsa News