Service workers at South Africa’s universities were outsourced since the late 1990’s after the ANC government adopted its GEAR economic policy. This meant that cleaners, security, transport and catering workers were no longer directly employed by univerities. They were now employed by outsourced companies, losing most of their benefits and earning less than half their wages.
The struggle against outsourcing has been part of workers struggle at institutions of higher learning since then and did not start with #FeesMustFall. The only difference this time around is that students and workers saw the importance of linking struggles and part of “decolonizing the universities.”
Outsourcing is the process of contracting workers to private companies instead of employing them directly. Outsourced workers in general and at institutions of higher learning do not have benefits like medical aid or pension funds. Most importantly the children of the outsourced workers do not benefit from the huge discount in fees that those who work directly for the university get.
It has also been difficult to unify the outsourced workers under one trade union as you have several different employers and unions that organize on an industry basis. For example the cleaners and security guards at the university would belong to the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, SATAWU. Meanwhile those that prepare and serve food would belong to the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, SACCAWU. Previously they would all belong to one union. Also, it has always been difficult to unify the academic and support staff with the outsourced workers as the former would be organized by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, NEHAWU.
Andiswa Pere, a 34 year old cleaner at UCT, employed by Metro Cleaning Services told Elitsha that she works 6 hours a day without benefits like medical aid or proper safety equipment to protect them from cleaning chemicals. Pere said they do not have proper uniforms and that she takes home about R3,000 per month. Another worker who wanted to remain anonymous because of fear of victimasation told Elitsha that he is a member of NEHAWU and feels that their shopstewards do not fully represent them as workers. “The shopstewards do not really help us and they don’t fight for us. It had to be students who take up our issues with management,” said the worker. As a result of pressure that was put on the university by the worker-student alliance, UCT and NEHAWU struck an agreement on insourcing with conditions being negotiated at expiry time of the current contracts with the companies. The workers have since rejected the “insourcing in principle” and want to negotiate the terms before the end of the contracts.
NEHAWU at UCT claims that it has been fighting outsourcing for the past 10 years. James Mouers, a NEHAWU shopteward at UCT said that the solidarity and links between the workers and the students is the reason why the university has agreed to insourcing.
Workers and management at UWC have not agreed on insourcing yet. Yumina Gcwabe an outsourced worker of Bidvest at UWC said that she takes home R2700. After weeks of protest by the workers and the students at the Universities of Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Bay they agreed to insource the workers.