Labour Brokers’ Reign of Terror at UKZN

by Jun 17, 2010Articles

By Trevor Ngwane and Zamani Hlatshwayo

Workers at South Africa’s universities have seen wages and conditions of service nosedive because of “outsourcing”. This happened in the context of the post-apartheid government’s shift away from Reconstructoin and Development in 1996, when a neoliberal macroeconomic policy was adopted. Soon, most universities ditched long-standing workers, led by the University of Cape Town.

Mamphele Ramphele, then UCT vice-chancellor, fired hundreds of workers and arranged for replacement by contract companies. Outsourcing meant draconian pay cuts and the loss of numerous worker benefits (study leave, fee discounts, medical aid, housing subsidy, etc.)

Workers had no choice but to fight back. After many of years of struggle, UCT workers won a code of conduct binding contract companies to minimum labour standards including a R3 200 basic wage. This victory must now be generalised to similar workplaces.

For example, University of KwaZulu-Natal workers are suffering. Cleaning and gardening staff take home R1 200 a month, and security personnel R2 000. A decade of wage cuts and deteriorating working conditions, combined with a draconian disciplinary regime, means these workers have their backs against the wall.

They have formed a workers’ forum to publicise their plight, and along with sympathizers on campus, argue that the best solution is for the university to “in-source” them, to restore them from exploitative contract companies onto the university payroll.

The contract companies are, for all effective purposes, labour brokers, many associated with Black Economic Empowerment gimmicks. They add no value to the work done by workers for the university, but are like a middleman inserted into the labour process. This erodes the relationship between the university and its workforce.

Before outsourcing, UKZN paid the worker for work done; today it pays a contract company boss who, after taking the lion’s share, pays the worker peanuts and squeezes tighter.

Last year, UKZN cleaning workers went on strike when an hour was taken off their working day and their wages reduced likewise while the workload remained the same.

Outsourcing also allows employers to abrogate their responsibility for industrial relations, that is, nurturing the employer-employee relationship. UKZN authorities generally wash their hands of worker well-being. The result, over the last couple of months, is that contract company bosses have been waging a reign of terror.

CP Rogers’ letter to the editor (The Mercury, 23 February) makes a preposterous statement, brilliantly exposing the anti-worker mentality that prevails in our society: “the [university] non-academic staff is hugely bloated and grossly inefficient” and “would be fired within a week in the private sector”.

Most non-academic personnel in universities are employed by for-profit contract companies. They do get “fired within a week”, and this exactly the bone of contention. The hiring and firing of workers without regard to their rights and needs must stop.

The overarching neoliberal policy after apartheid meant South Africa’s rich got richer and poor got poorer, because the system is designed to facilitate the flow of public money from state coffers into the private pockets of company directors and shareholders. Julius Malema is only the most extreme case, of the overall problem that over the last 30 years, across the world, we have seen an exponential rise in profits while wages have gone down.

The global economic crisis has exposed the shortcomings of neoliberal ideas such as Rogers’ blind faith in the efficiency of the private sector. The credo against state intervention in the economy was exposed as so much hogwash when all the capitalist states channeled billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to bail out the failing banks.

The time has come to expose labour broking: workers’ experiences suggest that outsourcing is bad news, benefiting capitalists and the “tenderpreneurs”.

Our universities are supposed to be leaders of knowledge and enlightenment, but they need to do more than just talk, they have to act. This is an open challenge to all university leaders to put their money where their mouths are, to protect the rights of all workers on campuses, in particular, contract workers.

This is crucial this month because of recent victimisation of workers organizing to improve their situation at UKZN. Not seeking confrontation, their first step was to ask the Centre for Civil Society to host a seminar last August, to discuss their plight with the university community. UKZN sent its most senior official in charge of corporate services, Charles Poole, yet the contract bosses treated the seminar as a declaration of war.

Then the victimization began. Firings, suspensions, forced transfers, threats, witch hunts, harassment, vindictiveness. Within two weeks of the seminar, nine security guards who participated in the seminar were fired.

At the end of 2009, a cleaning contract company at the Westville campus fired 60 workers, following an investigation by the university prompted by workers. Their sin was to reveal irregularities and even fraud in provident fund deductions. In an act of betrayal and cowardice, the university took no action to protect the workers against the subsequent victimization of workers by the contract company.

Four workers were fired last Thursday by Prestige, another contract cleaning company. Now everyone is afraid.

But what is really getting the workers’ spirits down is the daily harassment by managers and supervisors in the course of work. Workers are moved around and shifted away from familiar sites. The contract bosses have adopted an intolerant and boorish attitude, the workers tell us.

Exploitation is extreme, because comparable UKZN staff are paid at least six times the wage of a contract worker. Contract workers complain that the hardest jobs on campus are reserved for them. UKZN authorities are turning a blind eye to the suffering of workers, and attacks on workers are waged with their tacit connivance.

More worrying is Poole’s admission at the seminar that many university contracts had been rolled over every month for many years and not put out to tender as required by government policy. This means the contract companies do not have their work assessed or their contracts reviewed on a regular basis. Only now is this set to change, we hear.

Minister of higher education Blade Nzimande, a former UKZN staff member, alluded in a speech last year to the need to contest neoliberalism at universities. Meanwhile the ANC, SACP and COSATU have pledged a to-the-death struggle with labour brokers. Yet still, there is little respite for contract workers employed at universities. Instead, finance minister Pravin Gordhan encouraged labour broking in his speech, with a new state subsidy for a two-tier labour market.

What Gordhan and President Zuma forget is that in South Africa, a two-tier labour system already exists. Very poorly paid workers are employed by labour brokers, while other workers are properly employed by their employer. Then there are millions sitting at home unemployed. Class apartheid is alive and kicking.

Back here at UKZN, our scholars include statisticians who measure inequality using the Gini Coefficient while university authorities create and perpetuate that inequality. Universities cannot be both fountains of knowledge and sweatshops to enrich labour brokers. It is immoral and unsustainable that the cost structure of a university should be based on the super-exploitation and humiliation of labour.

Exploited workers have no choice but to continue with their struggle. They need all our support in the struggle against outsourcing. Our ultimate goal is to build a society where compassion, collectivism and solidarity are the dominant values rather than individualism, competition and acrimony. In our quest to remove all forms of oppression and exploitation from this earth one of the obstacles we will need to remove are the shibboleths of neoliberalism.

Trevor Ngwane is a masters student based at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and Zamani Hlatshwayo is an active member of the UKZN Workers’ Forum.

This article first appeared in the South African newspaper, The Mercury.

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