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70,000 construction workers strike in South Africa

Published Jul 20, 2009 9:17 PM

South Africa is in a frenzy of construction in order to host the 2010 World Cup soccer competition. Complaining of low wages, the 70,000 construction workers hired for the project walked off the job July 8.

Striking construction workers march
in Cape Town.

The union representing them, the National Union of Mineworkers, says they want a wage increase of 13.5 percent and more benefits, like parental leave. According to the NUM, all the involved worksites in the country have been hit by the strike and 90 percent of the workers are respecting the call to stay away.

Bush Radio web site reports that Danny Jordaan, spokesperson for the local organizing committee for the World Cup, says, “The workers have the right to strike if they feel they have legitimate grievances.” He of course hopes “the strike can be resolved soon so that the stadiums can be finished on schedule.”

South Africa is upgrading five stadiums and building five new ones. A new airport for Durban, the country’s major port on the Indian Ocean, as well as power stations and a rapid rail line from the international airport to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital, are also being constructed.

The average salary of construction workers is 2,500 rand a month—about $300. The anger over management’s counter-offer is so high that 2,000 construction workers not in the union also walked out in Cape Town. They disrupted traffic, doing the protest dance toyi-toyi through the streets, chanting and singing. It was reported that the cops used stun grenades to disperse them. (News 24 web site)

The World Cup of soccer, known as football everywhere but in North America, is the biggest sporting event on the globe. Some 2 billion to 3 billion people watch it on television and hundreds of thousands of fans throng the stadiums. Next year the World Cup will be held for the first time on the continent of Africa.

Dispatches from both Reuters and AP say an agreement has been reached on the wage issue which could be brought to the union members for a vote by July 13.

Testifying to the significance of the strike, the South African Minister of Labor, Membathisi Mdladlana, served as mediator for the talks. Besides representatives from NUM/Building Trades, the employers’ council and the local organizing committee for the World Cup, General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi of the Congress of South African Trade Unions attended, along with the chair of the parliamentary committee on labor, Lumka Yengen.

When the strike started on July 8, the employers predicted it would last a day or two at most. They pointed to the unemployment rate, which Statistics South Africa puts at 23.5 percent, and the financial weakness of the union and its members, who have no strike fund and no savings.

They failed to take into account the whip of inflation, which is running at 8 percent, and the workers’ perception that their employers were under a tight deadline.

It was the employers who buckled first.