On the eve of a second round of wage negotiations for South Africa’s road freight industry, the transport sector – which hasn’t had a strike for nine years - is facing the prospect of labour action because of a set of tough demands made by organised labour.
According to Penwell Lunga, who chairs the Road Freight Association’s (RFA) board and sits on the body’s Labour Relations Committee, labour has issued industry with 30 demands as part of its wage negotiations.
Top of labour’s list is a wage increase of 20% across the board (ATB) for one year but which could be applicable for three years provided that the transport industry agrees to a three-year retrenchment moratorium.
In addition, Lunga told delegates at the association’s recent annual convention, that labour wanted minimal salary adjustments of R10 000, R12 000, R13 000, R18 000 and R20 000 respectively for general workers, for Code 8, 10 and 14 drivers, and for ultra-heavy drivers.
Also, labour demands housing allowances, a working week reduced to 40 hours without loss of pay, allowances to increase ATB, the scrapping of the industry’s incentive scheme system, and the removal of drive cams from cabins for monitoring purposes.
Naturally, from the moment the various parties of the National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight and Logistics Industry started meeting with labour on April 30, the scene was set for a rocky ride.
A subsequent meeting on May 5 to clarify demands prior to the first round of actual negotiations from May 26-27 resulted in two cases of Covid-19 and underscored the council’s motivation that, given the pandemic’s challenges, labour negotiations this time around could not be business as usual.
Lunga said that it had to be taken into account that hauliers – those who had survived the ravages of Covid – were facing extreme pressure.
“Businesses have suffered, have closed, and have retrenched people.”
He stressed that since April 1 last year, days after the hard lockdown started, the industry had laid off 6237 people, excluding labour-brokered employees and temporary staff.
He added that since March the bargaining council had also received 557 exemption applications from transport companies seeking relief from wage agreements.
In comparison, only 16 and 61 exemption applications had been received for the preceding years of 2018 and 2019.
A second round of negotiations is set down for tomorrow and Thursday.
Lunga said it had been important from the start for industry to make it very clear that the current demand of 20% ATB was unrealistic.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have free cash lying around.”
He said industry’s intention was to comply with offering a wage increase well above inflation, an approach that over the past nine years has stood the industry in good stead, helping to avoid road freight workers from going on strike.
Lunga also said that the combined value of all the demands labour was making, was well above the 20% increase.
He said that a previously agreed increase of 7.5%, valid from March till February next year, had been initially reconsidered, but industry doesn’t like to go back on a binding agreement.
Although it’s very important to keep employees happy and retain stability in an industry that often experiences violence and volatility, Lunga said the demands made by labour “are big numbers to absorb by any industry”.
He indicated that there was much optimism and collective goodwill to build on the negotiation victories that the council and labour had chalked up since 2013, but wouldn’t be drawn on whether industry should prepare itself for strike action.
However, Lunga added that nine years of strike avoidance may not bode well for trade representatives.
“It poses a danger for the unions in that they may be perceived as weak and it could push them into strike action. They may see this as time to claim some of their power back.”
The fact that a lot of the unions lost out to Covid-related salary reductions based on short-time measures could also be grist to labour’s mill, Lunga warned.