Workers of South Africa’s freight and rail operator Transnet commenced an industrial action on Thursday as a wage dispute between the company and two major unions seems set to paralyse services and disrupt exports.
The state-owned Transnet has been operating below capacity due to a shortage of locomotives, poor maintenance and vandalism and theft of its infrastructure, costing miners billions of rand in potential revenue.
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Two worker unions – the United National Transport Union (UNTU) and the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU) – that represent most of Transnet workers turned down a wage rise offer of 3-4 percent, saying it was below the country’s annual inflation. South Africa’s inflation rate was 7.6 percent in August.
UNTU said its members began a strike on Thursday morning and SATAWU is due to join the action from Monday.
“This will have a profound impact on economic activity across all sectors, and [Transnet] urges workers to consider the long-term consequences of the strike on themselves, their colleagues, their families and the South African economy as a whole,” Transnet said in a statement.
UNTU and SATAWU said Transnet’s lawyers had written to them on October 3 saying their industrial action would be illegal as some workers involved provided essential services and were restricted by labour laws from striking.
The operator also questioned the balloting process through which union members approved the strike action. It also said no picketing rules had been agreed on by the company and striking workers, as required by the labour law, the unions said.
They rejected Transnet’s allegations, saying they had given the required 48-hour strike notice and engaged the company on picketing rules.
Transnet did not respond to a request for comment.
UNTU General Secretary Cobus van Vuuren accused Transnet of seeking to intimidate workers by declaring the strike illegal.
“This is just another attempt by Transnet to deploy scare tactics to prevent the strike and to delay the process,” he said.
All parties have agreed to mediation by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), a state agency. The unions have said further talks, due to start on October 12, will not affect strike plans.