Refuse collectors demand better working conditions

Uncollected rubbish in Powerline,Motherwell. Pic by Joseph Chirume

A month-long strike by Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality’s (NMBM) refuse collectors was called off last week after the striking workers felt that their employer had roped in the services of private contractors as a contingency plan. The employees alleged that the strike was affecting poor communities only because the private refuse collectors were working in the white suburbs.

The disgruntled workers pointed out that the municipality was deliberately refusing to accommodate their grievances as a ploy to employ the private contractors in their place. The nearly 700 workers are not happy with their working conditions.

The South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) affiliated workers have been embroiled in a dog fight with the NMBM demanding the latter expedite a comprehensive improvement of their working conditions. Top among their grievances was the contentious issue of an eight-hour shift with the provision of a paid lunch hour. SAMWU was also demanding lunch hours backdated  five months, which had accumulated over a period of time.

SAMWU regional secretary, Mqondisi Nodongwe outlined the grievances, “It was a wrong impression that we were on a strike. People have been working all along. That impression was created by Athol Trollip to find a reason to hire the private contractors, because they don’t want to pay workers the extra hours they work when collecting refuse. The nature of refuse collection stipulates that workers collect the rubbish from 6-2pm.”

“Due to the quantity of job and the area covered workers often work after 2 pm. Now the municipality does not want to pay for the overtime. Councillor Trollip hired private contractors to finish that job. They were not prepared to negotiate because they have an interest in these private companies they are hiring out to take our jobs to.”

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Nodongwe stated that they decided to call off the industrial action after having discovered that the private companies were only collecting rubbish from white areas, ignoring the black and coloureds communities.

“We had a meeting with workers last week where we decided to do the job but in eight hours only. The second reason was that the municipality’s contingency plan was only aimed at supplying services to white suburbs, isolating the poor black and coloured communities. This is the reason you won’t find piles of rubbish in rich communities because the municipality has been collecting it using their hired private contractors. We value our poor communities highly.”

One refuse worker, who preferred not to have his name published, stated that he has been working in that position for 12 years but his life is not improving.

The Motherwell resident explained, “I have been working as a refuse collector for nearly twelve years to date. My salary is pathetic as I can not even manage to feed my family. The municipality owes me five months salary as a result of lunch hours that accumulated over time that we were never paid for. This job is dangerous because some of the refuse is toxic and can harm us. We should be treated with respect and get better treatment because our job is highly risky.”

He lives with his wife and two grandchildren in an RDP house whose electricity was recently disconnected by the municipality because of an outstanding debt.

Another employee said he is even struggling to pay tuition fees for his son who is attending a Technical college in Uitenhage.

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The father of four said, “I am living in a backyard shack with my family. My first born son is attending a technical college. He applied for government funding but it is still not approved. I am the one who is funding him from my meagre salary. I wake up early in the morning to clean the refuse when everybody is asleep but at the end of it all I get a pittance as a salary.”

Meanwhile rubbish is accumulating at an alarming rate in Motherwell, Wells Estate and Kamvelihle. This as a result of the recent violent protests by people living in informal settlements who are demanding land. This prompted the municipality to halt service delivery in the volatile areas for safety reasons.

Explained NMBM mayoral spokesman, Sibongile Dimbaza,”The municipality reached an agreement with SAMWU and all refuse collection workers returned to work a week ago and have been rendering the service ever since. Areas like Motherwell and Wells Estate have been engulfed by violence and intimidation meted out by aggrieved residents. Municipal vehicles and those belonging to private individuals were damaged during this violence, and thus the municipality took a decision not to allow its vehicles in the troubled areas.”

“This translated to no collection of refuse in certain parts of Motherwell and Wells Estate. It is also ill informed and misguided to say only white areas were prioritised. We have not abandoned our responsibilities as a municipality. Service delivery is our core mandate, but we are taking into consideration the safety of our employees first.”

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About Joseph Chirume 45 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.