Daphine Mlambo* discusses labour brokering in the context of the recent strike at the Post Office after which 294 workers achieved permanent employment.
Recently there has been a general increase in the number of services that provide temporary workers, commonly known as labour brokers. This has raised debates about the nature of labour brokering in South Africa. In this article we discuss the Post Office workers strike in the East and West Rand and the Vaal regions of the Gauteng province against their continued employment under labour brokers. While government and trade unions debated, these workers successfully engaged in an unprotected strike. The article is based on interviews with workers, William Mlangeni and Mthokozisi Buthelezi, in April 2012, at the Casual Workers Advice Office in Germiston. These two ‘ex-labour broker ‘workers who are now employed together with 292 workers by the Post Office.
History of the Post Office Strike:
In 2001, the Communication Workers Union (CWU)signed an agreement with the South African Post Office (SAPO) to make all the workers permanent after they had worked for a certain number of years. Most workers worked for more than ten years without this agreement being implemented. There were five labour broking companies affiliated to the Post Office namely TAS (with whom most workers were working under), Amarula Ngindi, Moshito and Quest. The workers related as employees to the Post Office even without any formal contract. Workers explained that there were two registers at their depots; one is for labour broker workers and another for SAPO.
The first attempted strike didn’t materialise because of poor preparation and after a court interdict workers went back to work. There was also a general feeling from the interviewees that CWU neglected their struggle. The recent successful strike lasted three months and was their second attempt within a space of six months. Workers mobilised within different depots and got leaders to communicate to other workers. Workers were threatened with dismissal and this impacted negatively on their mobilisation.
The (unprotected) strike started off with between 600 and 700 workers but only 294 remained when the strike ended. Workers received smses threatening their dismissal from their labour brokers during the strike. Some were even under the impression they were no longer employed. In the final stages of the strike workers turned to the South Africa Postal and Allied Workers Union (SAPAWU) as CWU had let them down previously. The Post Office finally agreed to employ 300 workers permanently. Although the strikers had to apply for the positions, they received preference. The Post Office agreed to terminate their services with labour brokers within three months. Workers have had no communication with labour brokers since the strike.
In terms of the very important question this journal seeks to address on the state of resistance and social movements and unions, the strike is important. One debate focused on the role of unions in organising. One view argued against organising with unions, because unions can be interdicted and barred from industrial action, whereas it is easier to organise as individuals or groups of workers. Another view highlighted how SAPAWU indicated that unions can help workers in their struggle. It seems workers are willing to join SAPAWU and give it a chance.
There was an interesting turn to the strike, the workers who ditched the strike and returned to work, called “Amangudwane”(rats), are now on strike. After the Post Office employed the 294 strikers, they went on strike. The strikers, are not accepting any help from colleagues and there have been cases of violence. The labour brokers still hold meetings in some depots. With regards to the state of movements and organising, in the SAPO case, the union initially representing the workers was biased and didn’t represent workers. Workers had to mobilise on their own and the strike is evidence of this. Workers sustained their struggle without the support of a union. If there is a need for unions, they need to consider new ways of mobilising and sustaining themselves.