The Transnet strike might be over, but the fruit industry is not out of the woods yet and the aftermath will be felt by all in the value chain for many weeks to come, but mostly on ground level by the agri workers.
In Grabouw more than a thousand seasonal workers at one of the biggest packhouses in the area had no work or income over the past weeks due to the Transnet strike. The packhouse’s cooling facilities were full of fruit and because the fruit could not be exported the workforce was cut as packing more fruit was out of the question, said Gafieldien Benjamin, secretary-general of the Agricultural, Food, Fishing and Retail Industry Workers’ Union (Afriwu). According to Benjamin most of the workers who lost their wages were single parents and most were female.
Hudge Abrahams, an Afriwu shop steward, said that when they heard about the Transnet strike, they all knew that trouble was on its way and that the people on the floor were going to get hurt. “My phone has been ringing non-stop morning, noon, and night. What do I say to people who have no food, that have to borrow money to survive? I don’t have the answers.”
Brenda de Wee, another Afriwu shop steward said that their members understood the reasons behind the Transnet strike but are still angry. “This thing badly hurt the people in our community. We are relieved that it is over, and we are hoping that everyone will be able to go back to work soon, but even if that happens, the morale of the workers will be low.”
The Transnet strike had a severe financial impact on the workers of Grabouw, said Willem Skippers, another shop steward. He predicts that workers will feel the financial impact due to loss of income for some time to come. “And Christmas is around the corner.”
According to Benjamin Afriwu doesn’t believe that Transnet’s recovery plan of two weeks is realistic. In a statement, yesterday Transnet indicated that they would commence a phased approach to get exports back on track and clear the backlog. The approach will be as follows:
- First 24 hours – conduct safety checks;
- 24 to 28 hours – unblock the rail network;
- 3 to 7 days – performance catch-up;
- From week 2 – the system is to be restored.
According to Benjamin, they are positive about the future and confident that things will get back on track. “Afriwu believes in the power of negotiation and communication. A strike should only be called as a last resort, as too many people get hurt. Positive and realistic negotiations are the way forward to create a win-win for all.”
Afriwu shop stewards: Hudge Abrahams, Brenda de Wee and Willem Skippers.
The next 14 days will be critical for commodity groups and the general feeling is that the backlog is a major risk for international trade relations and could damage South Africa’s reputation. It also gives other Southern Hemisphere countries an advantage in the European and Middle East markets.
Earlier Fruit SA CEO Fhumulani Ratshitanga said the strike puts the fruit industry at risk. “Increase in freight costs further put pressure on the profit margins of producers, making us uncompetitive. Ports issues have many other implications one of which is the compromise on produce quality in cases of delays as well as the potential of vessels bypassing our ports.”
Transnet indicated that a 3-year agreement had been reached with UNTU, the union which represents most workers within the respective bargaining council. As UNTU represents more than 50% of the employees covered by the bargaining council, the agreement technically binds all Transnet staff and signals the end of the official strike with workers officially being due back at work with immediate effect. Additional security measures were also put in place to prevent intimidation of returning workers. To date, no intimidation of workers was reported.
Transnet indicated that their main priority was to clear any backlogs across the port and rail systems. As far as port operations are concerned, priority was to be given to time-sensitive perishable products and medical equipment. The deciduous fruit industry works closely with Transnet management to find solutions to the problems at our ports.
Caption: Afriwu shop stewards with Secretary-General, Gafieldien Benjamin, on the far right.