Members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the National Union of Mineworkers assembled in their numbers outside Megawatt Park in Johannesburg in protest against 0% salary increases.
Unions had demanded a 15% salary increase across the board in a one-year agreement, but Eskom rebuffed the demand saying that salaries would not be increased at all this year.
National Union of Metalworkers president Andrew Chirwa said Thursday’s protests were a mere warning of what was to come.
“This is a provocation of the highest note. If Eskom management thinks that workers at Eskom will not continue to soldier on ... they have something coming.
“This is the beginning. It is a warning bullet‚ not the end of the action.
“If they continue to undermine us by putting zero percent on the table‚ we will come back and ensure that there are no lights in the rest of the country‚” said Chirwa, addressing protesters outside Eskom’s Johannesburg headquarters.
He lambasted Eskom for telling workers that it did not have money for wage increases, yet it was able to afford lawyers in an effort to secure a court interdict against the strike.
“They have not learned their lesson. In Marikana there was a court interdict but it failed. There were many strikes where there were court interdicts but they failed. The court interdict cannot give workers a guaranteed increase.
“If the negotiations fail‚ it is upon you to take action in your own hands,” Chirwa said.
The power utility has been facing serious financial woes, including a R350-billion debt.
Adding to the mounting debt, Eskom has been troubled by compounded revenue losses, a chain of non-payments and “ghost vending” – just a few of the issues listed when Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts heard from municipalities indebted to Eskom.
There were fears that the protest would result in power cuts in some parts of the country, however, the power utility said it had put contingency plans in place to mitigate potential effects of the pickets.
Reports, however, came in that six Eskom power plants had been affected by the protest.
Keagile Pholoba‚ a National Union of Mineworkers full-time shop steward, told workers at the Johannesburg protest some units had been affected, particularly those in Mpumalanga.
“All units are down at Arnot [coal-fired power station]‚ just one is left. There is no coal on top of that. Hendrina is running on two units. Kendal is running on one unit. [In] the new power station which is Kusile‚ all units are red. Duvha station has only two units. Komati‚ the smallest power station‚ is running with one unit‚” Pholoba said.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, department officials and Eskom board members met with the leadership of Cosatu yesterday, at their invitation.
Cosatu had expressed concerns about the manner in which the wage negotiations had been conducted, the zero percent wage offer, and allegations that the Independent Power Producers programme was crowding out jobs in the mining sector.
Gordhan explained that there were a few challenges that the department was currently facing, listed as follows:
• The contraction in economic growth in Q1 of 2018 and lower growth projections for 2018;
• Current fiscal constraints – government does not have the money to continuously bail-out state-owned enterprises; and
• Eskom’s own difficult financial position – the utility is currently borrowing money to pay for operational expenses, including salaries. This is unsustainable. Urgent and decisive intervention is required to strengthen its balance sheet.
Gordhan said it was the responsibility of the Eskom board to determine what kind of wage increase Eskom could offer its employees and that he was in no position to instruct the board on the matter.
He called on all parties and stakeholders to give the wage negotiation process an opportunity to succeed and to desist from violence, intimidation and the disruption of coal deliveries to power stations.