NUMSA adapts to Covid-19

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Vanessa Le Roux
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Covid 19 has wreaked havoc on workers’ lives and has forced trade unions to change the ways they operate. Vanessa Le Roux spoke to Vuyo Lufele, Numsa Western Cape Regional Secretary, to find out what changes NUMSA has made.

What did the union do in term of its staff after the first announcement of the hard lock down?

We advised all staff to work from home during Lockdown Level 5. When the government moved from Lockdown Level 5 to Level 4, staff members [had] to declare if they have comorbidities with supporting doctors’ certificates or letters so that they can continue to work from home.

How did the union survive financially?  

We applied for TERS to mitigate the impact of this lockdown on the organisation as most of our factories were closed. We suspended petrol allowances as officials were working from home due to the Dispute Resolutions Centres being closed and employers were not willing to conduct face to face meetings.

How did the union manage to have meetings during the different levels of lock-down?

We installed virtual facilities at regional level and assisted all organisers with data to be able to conduct virtual meetings with employers. This assisted even when lockdown levels were lowered as conciliations and arbitrations were [still] conducted through virtual facilities. Some arbitrations and conciliations are still conducted through virtual facilities even today.

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WhatsApp and Facebook have been used to try and get collective bargaining mandates from members, says Vuyo Lufele NUMSA’s Western Cape regional secretary

During lockdown, the engineering sector collective agreement* was up for negotiations, how did you manage the mandate-seeking process?

This has been the most difficult moment for the organisation. We have completely failed to collect the mandate from our companies as it was difficult to convene factory general meetings and shop stewards’ councils.

We eventually used social media platforms, particularly WhatsApp, to communicate with our shop stewards. We advised shop stewards to establish WhatsApp Groups for our members in each company to communicate workers’ demands and get feedback. We conducted Facebook live report backs.

NUMSA Western Cape region’s engineering members meet outside their office to decide on the way forward with the engineering dispute (Pic: Vanessa Le Roux)

We are still engaging employers on issues that we were supposed to strike over a long time ago because of the difficulty of mobilising. We are persuading employers to reach consensus on what workers deserve.

What challenges did your members face during this period?

Our members have suffered. Some received zero increases in 2020 and some received very low increases in 2021. Many lost their jobs through retrenchments and company closures because of Covid-19. Some have accepted wage cuts of up to 30 per cent as a compromise to preserve their jobs. We lost members who died due to Covid-19 complications while some survived after being in Intensive Care Units (ICU). Some of our members lost family members.

Did the union adopt a new way of working? Do you see this as the new way of work?

We installed virtual facilities at a regional level and union officials with electronic facilities are utilising them to conduct virtual meetings. The union is in the process of buying laptops for all local organisers. [Before Covid-19] these had never been regarded as essential tools as organisers were always expected to utilise desktops. They have been ordered to improve service to our members. We see electronic systems becoming the future way of work.

Any general comments on the union’s future with this pandemic far from over?

This pandemic has made life difficult for the union as its income has dropped drastically. Some unions have retrenched their staff members. NUMSA has not embarked on this yet. We are trying to minimise costs by slowing down on unnecessary expenditure.

* The NUMSA NEC met on September 2021 and decided that since the employers had not improved their offer of 4.4% on minimum rates, the union will go on strike from October 5 2021. NUMSA is still open for employers to continue with bi-lateral negotiations. (NUMSA was demanding an 8% increase)

Vanessa Le Roux is Numsa’s coastal health and safety coordinator

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