Steel workers in Coega on strike since December

Striking workers of Agni Steel company holding a meeting in Daku,Port Elizabeth. Picture by Joseph Chirume

Steel workers in Port Elizabeth have been on strike since December demanding R48 per hour as opposed to the R24 that Agni Steel is paying them.

Coega, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Striking workers of Agni Steel in Port Elizabeth have decided to give arbitration one more chance before deciding on a final action to take. The disaffected workers said they are frustrated by their employer’s intransigence and arrogance when it comes to wage negotiations. They say that a decision has to be reached soon as the strain of going for nearly two months without a salary is wearing them down.

Agni Steel has been embroiled in a protracted labour dispute involving 140 workers. The bone of contention is a salary dispute backdated to 2016. The workers were awarded a certificate to strike on 7 December 2017 by the Port Elizabeth Labour Court.

They subsequently downed tools on 8 December. This was after several previous attempts to resolve the labour impasse peacefully had hit a brick wall. The disgruntled workers are demanding a rate of R48 per hour arguing that this was the figure agreed by the Metal and Engineering sector.

On the other hand, Agni Steel management is digging in its heels and insisting that their hourly rate of R24 is in line with the sector.

The workers allege that this rate of R24 per hour is paid to everyone by the company, across the board, regardless of grade and experience.

The workers are led by the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa, LIMUSA. The union organises in the same sector as Numsa and was formed after Numsa was kicked out of Cosatu. Aggravating the strike situation is the forced participation of 31 Numsa members in the strike who are not protected. They are fearing for the safety of their jobs should they return to work without guarantees that they will not be victimized. Speaking to Elitsha, Numsa regional secretary Mziyanda Twani said that when the strike turned violent, Numsa members stayed at home fearing that they will be targeted.

Limusa’s Mawonga Madolo explained,”The wage misunderstanding with Agni Steel started in 2016 with workers rightfully demanding a R48 per hour [rate], while the company insisted on offering half that amount. After realizing that Agni Steel was buying time and was not serious with workers’ plight, on 27 September 2017 we issued them with a notice to strike and Agni Steel responded by seeking an interim court interdict which was granted on 1 October. We however were allowed by the court on 7 December to proceed with striking. Workers then downed tools on 8 December.”

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Madolo said Agni Steel appealed against a demand by workers that the company desist from using scab labour. Limusa lost  the case on 15 January, allowing Agni Steel to continue with temporary workers. “We could not appeal against this because our legal team clearly explained to us that our members were never locked out by the employer but it was them who had instituted the strike action first. Had it been the company that had locked out workers first, we could have successfully interdicted the company and production at the company could have come to a standstill.”

In light of this, striking Agni workers held a meeting on 26 January in Daku, Zwide, where cracks emerged between the workers. A small section was willing to go back to work with the majority arguing that it would be futile to go back empty handed considering the duration of the strike and the sacrifices they had endured.

Limusa Organiser, Mava Beshenga addressed workers. He said, “We need to remain united and stop from blaming one another. We lost the case of scab labourers and we hear that there are people blaming the union for this loss. Our reasons were not convincing, that’s why we lost the case on 15 January. Our intention now is to chart a breakthrough and there are two options.”

“We have to decide today either to go back to our jobs or not to go at all. Limusa members are still protected in this strike. The other headache is that of 31 Numsa workers who we forced to join us. They are not protected and we should not dump them. We need to ensure that whatever decision we take, they are part of that resolution because they were forced to join this strike.”

An employee who has worked for Agni for more than four years and was promoted three times, said he still earned R24 an hour just like general workers.

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, “The prickly issue is that the company pays everybody the same rate regardless of rank. The other issue is that employees from Asia and Middle East are paid better than us and are well looked after. They are living at Coega Village, an upmarket and luxurious protected establishment, while we wallow in poverty in shacks and squatter camps.”

The man said he was earning a monthly salary of R7000, which he said is not enough given that he pays R1,300 a month rent. He further said he felt aggrieved that his three children did not get Christmas presents because the company did not pay him in December and January as a result of the strike action.

“We had a bleak Christmas. We are  angry that our children do not even have school fees and uniforms. I have had to move my children from Wells Estate where we live so that they can go and stay with my parents in Zwide where they can have food and clothing.”

Another worker who wanted to remain anonymous added, “We are no longer united comrades because people are now blaming Limusa for our court loss yet we have other people here who are sending sms stating that we should go back to work. Let’s have one strong decision, because a divided house will not stand.”

Explained Beshenga, “We finally reached a majority decision that we engage the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). We will be meeting them this Wednesday and Thursday. We hope a concrete decision will be arrived at.”

Agni Steel South Africa is a steel processing plant in Coega Industrial Zone, Port Elizabeth. The company is a major buyer of scrap metal and processes it into steel. It is a joint venture between Agni Steels (India) and a local Nelson Mandela Bay BEE Consortium.

Efforts to get a comment from Patrick Papu, the Human Resources manager, were fruitless.

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About Joseph Chirume 21 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.