University workers demand insourcing and better working conditions

Some of the 15 South Point workers on strike in Gqeberha. Photo by Joseph Chirume

Led by Giwusa, workers at university residences in major cities in South Africa have gone strike

Hundreds of workers employed by a company contracted by the government to provide accommodation to university students are on a protected strike that began on 1 September. The disgruntled workers are demanding an increase in their salaries and an end to outsourcing, among other issues.

Agitated workers of South Point Accommodation (PVT) Ltd have vowed to escalate their strike in all cities where the company is operating. The workers have been protesting outside the company’s premises in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Gqeberha.

Six workers in Gqeberha out of a total number of fifteen camped in Chapel Street where the company operates one of its student hostels. The workers are demanding a minimum wage of R12,500 per month. They were earning R4,700 per month before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. The workers want the company to stop deducting R200 fines for arriving late at work and demand that it provide medical, housing, and transport allowances.

The workers said they will only return to work after all their demands are met by the company. However, South Point says some of the grievances raised by its employees are unreasonable given the current economic conditions created by the pandemic.

South Point was established in 2003 with the objective of providing private accommodation to university students in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Gqeberha. The company is paid by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme for its services.

The indefinite protected nationwide strike is led by General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa). In a statement, the union says, “This strike is an escalation of the battle for a living wage of R12,500 a month and for an end to outsourcing of security guards and cleaning staff, accompanied by a resolute demand for their insourcing, which South Point workers have waged from the beginning.

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“This strike is also a response to the blatant intransigence of South Point bosses who have heaped attacks to working conditions under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has become clearer that South Point bosses have chosen the streets as a means to solve the long standing issues and that is where the workers shall meet them.”

Among a raft of demands by workers is the full payment of the outstanding Covid-19 Unemployment Insurance Fund’s Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) money. They are also demanding a 13th cheque which they claim was stopped in 2019, and for the company to pay medical aid, transport and housing allowances. The disgruntled workers want the company to provide them with loans.

“While the bosses of South Point are lining their pockets with profits and emptying the coffers of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), South Point workers live in poverty and are working under deplorable conditions,” added the statement.

A worker in Gqeberha who spoke on condition of anonymity said their already meagre salary is reduced by deductions the company exacts for reporting late at work. “This is confusing because that R200 is equivalent to a daily wage. We are paid R21 per hour and we work for 12 hours.

“Another grievance is that the company pays us eight hours when one goes on leave instead of the normal 12 hours. We are not paid overtime even when we work during Sundays and public holidays,” she said.

Most of the workers are the sole breadwinners at home. The worker said they are struggling to look after their families because workers are now earning little above R2,000 per month after they were put on a rotational system. “Management have reduced our working days by eight days per month and this has drastically reduced our wages. We are also demanding that they give us annual leave in December when occupancy in buildings is low,” she said.

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South Point issued a statement accusing Giwusa of making unreasonable demands. South Point says it acceded to eight out of fifteen demands, blaming the pandemic for creating a bad business environment.

The statement says, “The impact of Covid-19 has been felt throughout the global business community. South Point does not operate in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world.

“In response we have cut costs where possible, closing underutilised buildings, cutting budgets, postponing projects, moving to rotational work in order to avoid any staff retrenchment and to ensure the survival of the business.”

South Point said it cannot meet the demand of R12,500 salary per month. It said the amount is unsustainable in an economic climate which is experiencing high retrenchments and company closures. The company also rejected the demand to insource cleaners saying cleaning is not one of their core competencies.

South Point denied that it owes workers more than one month of TERS money. It said it could not pay workers for the month of June because UIF had not paid them for that month. The company says it cannot pay a 13th cheque because it operates a performance based bonus system which is discretionary and based on the performance of the individual employee and that of the company. However, the company agreed to solve some of the demands, including allowing workers to take leave over Christmas and New Year. South Point promised to look into the time and attendance register in order to address the case of the R200 fines for late-coming.

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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.