ANDILE KHUMALO: Strikes can thwart black ambition to control the economy
A few weeks ago, and conveniently ahead of the Easter weekend rush, Numsa issued Comair with a 48-hour notice to strike on the basis that their members were unhappy with wage disparities at the airline. According to the union, this is a matter that had been outstanding since late last year, and one shouldn't read too much into the timing of the attempted strike. Yeah, right. The strike did not go ahead thanks to a successful labour court interdict application from Comair, but it did get me thinking about the impact of strikes on businesses, especially black-owned businesses.
Back in the day, strikes and stayaways, as I knew them, were somewhat of a proxy for the struggle. Our parents were standing up against a system that abused them in refusing to provide dignified work for dignified pay. Even in recent times, I don't think too many black people sympathise much when a "white" company is on the receiving end of a strike. But, in reality, strikes and labour demands affect all employers, black and white.
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I was reminded of this when I had an impromptu catch-up with the hard-working entrepreneur and CEO of Africa People Mover (APM), Tumisang Kgaboesele. This man has built his business from the ground up, fought hard to secure growth capital from the likes of the National Empowerment Fund and the Small Enterprise Finance Agency, and now runs a fleet of 30 coaches and employs 163 people across SA. "The long-distance bus industry has been living under a spectre of a nationwide strike over the past couple of weeks now," said Kgaboesele. "While we have come to accept strikes as part of the new normal, the difference is that the threatened strike by organised labour would most certainly spell a death knell for the majority of the operators in our sector. The almost six-weeks 2018 strike left many of us on the brink of collapse.
"In the case of APM, we lost 17% of our annual turnover during the strike, perfectly timed to take place over the Easter peak period. As a direct result, with our business tinkering on bankruptcy, the only option at our disposal was significant downscaling. Severe cost-cutting became inevitable. Close to 20% of our then 220-strong workforce were retrenched and repayment arrangements entered into with our funders took us to the brink of liquidation."
Barely a year later, it seems labour wants to down tools over some interesting issues. One of these is what they call the "double driver" pay. Basically, this is a demand from the unions that employers like APM should pay each driver his full pay for as long as he is on the coach, irrespective of whether such a driver is actually driving. This matters because to operate safely over long distances, drivers are required to swap every four hours. The unions also want employers to pay a night-shift allowance for the fact that their members work between 6pm and 6am, despite the fact that long-distance coach travel is mostly at night and therefore part and parcel of their normal work. "Just on affordability alone, all the employers in our industry are united," said Kgaboesele. "Employees in our sector are still reeling from the impact of last year's strike, having lost a month-and-a-half of wages and some even their jobs, thanks to downsizing initiatives that followed. Many are simply not interested in an action that will deliver ruin to their families, yet the unions insist on trying to strike again."
You will be hard-pressed to find a black businessman or woman who does not sympathise with the plight of workers. It's too big a part of our lived experience to ignore. However, I wonder if we think about the impact that industrial action can have on our own ambition to control the economy.
• Khumalo is an entrepreneur and a CA (SA)..