The unexpected announcement last week by General Motors South Africa that it is closing its Port Elizabeth-based car manufacturing plant was met with shock and dismay by both the workers and their unions.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and businesses appealed to government to ensure that jobs were saved. This, in light of the soaring unemployment in the city. An estimated 600 workers out of a total of 1500 employed by General Motors would be shed as a result of its disinvestment from South Africa. The corporation revealed that it would close shop in December.
GM’s move will have negative ramifications for the secondary industries down its supply chain. The company revealed that Japanese vehicle manufacturer, Isuzu, would take over some of its operations in Port Elizabeth, thus absorbing some workers in the process. Isuzu will not, however, be manufacturing or producing the fast selling Chevrolet brand.
Workers and their unions claim that they were never consulted and that the announcement was entirely unexpected. They accuse General Motors of taking the drastic decision unilaterally.
Archie Mpehlo has worked for GM for 24 years. He explained his shock and misery, stating that he is now expecting a bleak future for his family because he has no limited skills outside of the vehicle manufacturing industry.
The 50-year-old father of five explained, “I have worked with much fidelity and confidence for GM.I had all my hopes pinned on them and thought I was going to retire and draw my pension from the company. It all appears to be a long and frightening nightmare. I am just hopeless.”
Nomakhaya, who did not want to reveal her surname and age, said “We were told by the management that there would be a meeting where interesting news would be announced. We had expected good news because we had had many employment related issues that were still pending with the company. We even expected that the company was going to announce a salary increase. There were also people who were on suspension… However everybody got shocked when it was abruptly announced that the company would cease operating in December.
“I have three children, one of whom is in his third year of a four-year degree programme at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Who will sponsor his studies if I get retrenched? I still owe a huge amount of money in arrears on my bond for the house we are staying in. I also have several accounts including one for the car and clothing. Is General Motors going to pay for that?”
The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) convened a mass meeting of its members at the Nangoza Jebe Hall in New Brighton where general secretary Irvin Jim threw barbs at GM management.
Addressing more than 400 agitated workers, Jim said, “The decision by General Motors to disinvest from South Africa did not come as a shock because these multinationals move from one state to another with impunity. When they take these decisions they don’t consult workers and the respective governments. Capitalism knows no boundary.”
He continued to pledge NUMSA’s support: “As NUMSA we will stand with you. We will perish with you. We are not going to sell you out. We are going to fight to the bitter end with General Motors… We are going to have 60 days of consultations during which we want to know every detail of the pull-out process and how they arrived at that decision. This also includes more information about their deal with Isuzu. We are told this today, and then tomorrow they say another thing concerning Isuzu. We want the truth. We feel this is a decision to dump their products in South Africa and continue making money”
Jim hinted that Numsa could approach the courts for recourse if General Motors does not provide the necessary information.
“This could also end up in court as we demand more information from them. We are writing to their parent company, General Motors America and the trade unions there. We demand a meeting with them. It is our psychological view that you as workers should not be traumatized by this deal. This is also going to affect those companies that have been doing business along the General Motors value supply chain. We will not allow you to join a sea of poverty and unemployment.”
Fuzile Spokes said he had no idea where he will get money to look after his family of ten. He has worked for General Motors for 23 years.
He explained his predicament: “I am the only bread winner in my family. I don’t know what the future of my children looks like after I get retrenched. We used to get loans from the banks because we had proof of employment; who is going to help us if I get retrenched? Workers are also anxious, as we do not know who will be retrenched and who will remain. Also we don’t know the working conditions at Isuzu. Our government should take a lesson from this experience. The government should put stringent measures to protect its people against predatory companies like General Motors. Who knows if Isuzu is also going to do the same? Some of these companies are only here to exploit us and our resources then disappear with fat pockets leaving us wallowing in poverty.”
A visibly disillusioned employee who works for Lear Sewing Corporation, a company that supplied General Motors with car seats said, “Everybody at our company is disillusioned by General Motors’ decision. Our bosses were also shocked by the announcement. They told us in a meeting that out of a total workforce of 360, at least 100 will be retrenched. Most of the affected employees are sewers and assemblers. Morale is very low at our company at present. People do not know what the future holds for them.”