This is the strong view of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
The organisation’s general secretary, Silumko Nondwangu, tells Engineering News that there is an urgent need to put an export policy in place to ensure that steel merchants meet local demand before exporting scrap metal.
“South African exports of basic iron and steel and nonferrous metals to other countries, especially China, have seen dramatic increases,” Nondwangu reports.
The percentage change of exports to China from 2001 to 2004 increased by 193% for basic iron and steel, while nonferrous metals increased by 893%.
At the same time, imports of machinery and equipment into South Africa from China has also been increasing, with a percentage change of 288% between 2001 and 2004.
“This points to the inability of our sector to engage in the effective beneficiation of our pri-mary products. Increased beneficiation will be critical,” Nondwangu stresses.
On the outsourcing front, Nondwangu says that there has been increased outsourcing with the use of labour brokers in the sector.
“Employees who are contracted to the labour brokers do not have the usual benefits that full-time employees enjoy.” In addition, labour brokers often do not provide the comprehensive training that is required by the industry.
Nondwangu says that this is unfortunate for the workers as some labour brokers are unscrupulous and fail to pay money that has been deducted from them for pensions and provident funds.
“This results in a lot of policing by the Bargaining Council, and Numsa has to ensure that the money is paid,” he says.
In certain cases, the primary employer is deemed liable for the nonpayment.
Nondwangu says that, while outsourcing continues to increase, the shortage of skilled labour in some subsectors of the industry, including MIC welding, persists.
“Sometimes skilled labour has to be imported from overseas when companies undertake major projects.” The bulk of the companies in the metal industry are small and it makes it hard for them to negotiate discounts on major input materials, such as steel.
The current practice of import-parity pricing affects such companies and Numsa is watching this situation with close interest.
“In the case of retrenchments, Numsa has managed to negotiate, in the automotive assembly and tyre industry, that all workers employed in the industry must have the equivalent of adult basic education level-four training,” he continues.
Nondwangu contends that most of these employees leave before the target is attained and it means that they cannot compete for jobs with many young matriculants that are unemployed. Therefore, he says, trade unions, together with Merseta, are finding ways to develop training that will target retrenched workers.
Interestingly, all the subsectors of the metal industry that Numsa has negotiated with, have agreed to annual wage increases of at least the consumer price index.
“The increasing burden that workers face from unemployed family members, HIV/Aids and skyrocketing fuel prices is fast eating away at any increase that they receive,” he notes.
Although there has been a downward trend in employment over the last decade, 1994 figures show that employment has been slowly increasing.
“Given the capital expenditure plans under way in most State-owned enterprises, there is great potential for future growth in the industry,” Nondwangu continues.
He believes that government’s plans to spend some R65-billion on capital expansions will assist the growth of the metals sector.
“All stakeholders, however, must ensure that they are able to build up the capacity that will enable them to undertake these projects locally,” he urges.
In instances where local skills are not available, Nondwangu says the metals sector should encourage government to initiate partnership programmes between local and foreign firms, ensuring skills transfer.
In terms of black economic-empowerment (BEE), Nondwangu says the metals sector is yet to secure a relevant charter.
“It has become imperative that something concrete be done to tackle this important issue.” Numsa is busy undertaking a research project to investigate the practice of BEE in the sector.
“It is surprising to note that there has been hesitation on the part of industry to participate in the study.” He says that labour and business will have to engage some time in the near future and develop a BEE strategy, which will benefit workers.
“The issues of income and wealth inequalities and poverty alleviation have to be looked at, while still ensuring that businesses are able to run efficiently and maintain sustainable growth.”
Numsa was formed to fight and oppose dis-crimination in all its forms within the union, factories and in society.
In addition, it strives towards being one union that represents all metalworkers.
Further, it provides a living example to workers of democracy, where workers can elect worker representatives including those at shopfloor level to others at national body level.
Numsa aims to encourage democratic worker leadership and organisations in fac-tories and in all spheres of society.
“Evidence of this can be found in the large numbers of members of parliament, councillors and civil servants that are members of the union,” Nondwangu says.
Numsa is affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and was formed in 1987 after the merger of four different trade unions operating in the metal and related sectors.
At its peak in 1991, Numsa had a member- ship of 280 000 people.
Large-scale retrenchment saw this number drop to below 200 000.
To counter this decline, a recruitment drive was initiated and has been running over the last nine months.
“We have seen numbers climbing above the 200 000 mark to some 216 000, which makes Numsa the second-biggest affiliate of Cosatu,” Nondwangu concludes.
Numsa works to benefit its members by defending worker rights, taking up grievances, representing workers in disciplinary and appeal hearings, fighting unfair labour prac-tices and bargaining to improve wage and working conditions.