Skills loss gloom misplaced - union

17th October 2008 By: Fatima Gabru

There is a misplaced gloom in the metals fabrication sector, created by the lack of artisans and the loss of highly skilled artisans who are leaving the country says National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) national spokesperson Mziwakhe Hlangani.

He comments that the union, with other stakeholders, like the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education Training Authority (Merseta) and companies in the industry, have been looking into the skills drain and seeking ways to resolve the situation to ensure that effective training programmes are delivered. Different programmes, such as the fast-tracked Accelerated Artisan Training Project (AATP), have come out of these coordinated efforts.

Numsa organising and collective bargaining unit head Bafana Ndebele says Merseta is undertaking several different projects helping to create jobs in the industry, with a focus on small-, medium-sized and micro-enterprises in particular.

Hlangani says that, as a result of different accelerated programmes from the government sector, metal and engineering workers will be benefiting the most from the job creation that these opportunities will afford them.

The union is also working on gaining recognition for prior learning (RPL). There are a number of experienced, skilled artisan aids who have been assisting artisans and as a result have acquired the necessary skills and experience from the artisans. These workers, who are still described as lower-skilled workers, have in fact been working under experienced and qualified artisans, acquiring and learning the same skills, but are not being recognised and rewarded for this work. Numsa is working on an agreement with government and employers, to have artisans who have the experience and skills, fast-tracked to become qualified, adds Ndebele.

Ndebele says that Numsa is currently working on skills development at two levels. Firstly, Numsa is working with Merseta, to determine how to reskill the lower-skilled workers. In some instances, the workers are approaching retirement age and prefer to be retrenched rather than be reskilled.

Secondly, Numsa is suggesting to employers that the lower-skilled workers should be given more responsible and challenging tasks, as well as the financial rewards that accompany these tasks.

Hlangani says, however, that it is a challenge to Numsa that employers continue to describe these workers as lower-skilled workers.

Ndebele adds that employers are not recognising RPL formally at work. To this end, the union is working with Merseta to have RPL acknowledged and recognised by employers.

Industry Growth

Meanwhile, Numsa disagrees with the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa that the metals sector is shrinking, arguing that the union has noted an even, steady growth in the sector. Hlangani says that even though there have been dips in the growth of the industry, affected by market trends, there has been a sustained even growth over the years. He states that there are no significant constraints in the industry curtailing investment. "Earlier this year, there was the dispute on steel price fixing, but this did not create a significant problem within the industry. A number of smaller companies did feel threatened because of the steel pricing, but these problems have been weathered by the industry. The problems did not stop any of the projects that were already under way," he adds.

Hlangani says, "There are good agreements in place between labour and industry to ensure the sustainability and continuity of companies, and the accompanying job creation that goes with this. Through the agreements, stability in the industry has been ensured. Even though there are high inflation levels, labour has committed to weather the difficulties with these agreements."

Another challenge that Numsa is tackling is to ensure that there are sufficient qualified workers for the massive infrastructural development taking place in the country. The union believes that it is succeeding in meeting the requirements placed by industry demands on the large number of projects in preparation for 2010, in the workplace. "There is cooperation between labour and management, and other stakeholders, who are all working towards the same goals," adds Hlangani.

Competitive Challenges

Numsa agrees that there is a pricing challenge from China and India in the mass-manufacturing of metals fabrications. However, Ndebele says, "South African artisans are world class even if South Africa cannot compete with the Chinese in the mass-production of goods."

Ndebele comments that the challenge in the fabrication sector is not only the competition from China and India, but that the industry does not fully support its workers. A case of note, was the importation of Chinese welders by a petrochemicals company on a project about two years ago. Subsequently, it was found that the welders were not up to the standard of South African welders.

Health And Safety

Hlangani says that most of the accidents that take place in the workplace, happen in the iron and steel sector. The union has been encountering problems while trying to ensure that industry and labour cooperate on issues of health and safety.

An employer incentive to lower the rate of work-related accidents is proving to be a disincentive to report accidents. Work units receive bonuses for achieving the lowest accident rate in their areas. "This actually discourages workers from reporting, especially, the minor accidents, which create a skewed picture of what is actually happening on the factory floors. Accidents are only reported when there are fatalities," says Hlangani.

Numsa has set up health and safety committees in companies, and ensured that the representatives are changed on a yearly basis to guard against corrupt practices. There is a sector coordinator at a national level in the union, as well as at the regional and local level to educate and inform workers, to ensure that work-related accidents are reduced. Further, the union conducts a number of health and safety workshops on a regular basis to educate its members.

"Numsa is currently working on instilling new and safer work methods policies with the government body the National Economic Development and Labour Council," says Ndebele.

Additionally, Numsa is searching for a systematic way to reduce the fumes released from copper, lead, chrome, manganese, carbon dioxide and cobalt in fabrication processes, to protect workers as well as the environment.

Ndebele comments that Numsa would like to see the growth of the metals fabrication sector, as well as the growth of related subsectors, which would add value to local production chains. The union would also like to see more growth in supplying and assisting the Southern African Development Community as well as the rest of Africa. The industry should not only focus on the European markets. This is to ensure that the continent will also be part of the growing industry, he concludes.