Published: 29/01/2010

As the strike by over a thousand FAWU members at ABI in South Africa enters its sixth week, the company has begun responding with false allegations and deliberate misinformation to the messages sent to the company by trade unionists around the world calling on it to enter into good faith negotiations with the union.

FAWU and the IUF reject these allegations. They are a clumsy attempt to undermine international solidarity and part of the company’s efforts to divert attention from the very real issues at the heart of the conflict which have convinced FAWU members to embark on the first national strike at ABI in twenty years.

In response to the form letter being sent by ABI HR Director Steve Bluen, FAWU and the IUF point out that:

Contrary to the claims made in the letter, there is nothing in FAWU’s constitution or in South African legislation which obliges the union to ballot its members for industrial action. The company’s arrogance in advising FAWU on matters of procedure and “democracy” is breathtaking.

ABI has consistently claimed low support for the strike, cited fluctuating figures on the number of strikers and attempted to cultivate confusion in this regard rather than deal with the issues at the heart of the conflict. Not all FAWU members are in the bargaining unit, and are therefore not taking part in the strike. The strike has strong support at the company’s manufacturing plants and attached depots, which is where the union’s core membership is concentrated. ABI publicly acknowledges that 1,100 union members are on strike. Workers’ determination on the picket lines and at protest marches shows their determination to struggle for improved livelihoods.

ABI ceaselessly repeats the allegation that FAWU members have participated in violent actions without, however, providing evidence of union members’ involvement. Apparently they believe that it is sufficient to repeat it loudly and frequently enough in order for it to be accepted as true.

FAWU has repeatedly made clear its principled opposition to violence and issued repeated calls for peaceful conduct and discipline on the picket line. The only substantiated case of violence while picketing is one incident in Pretoria, where a manager appears to have provoked a shop steward, who responded violently but was restrained by union members.

ABI management has used the police to build up its portfolio of allegations. Thus, for example, 79 FAWU members who were peacefully picketing at the ABI Devland plant were arrested on allegations of public violence, contempt of court order and damage to property after a single stone was allegedly thrown at a passing delivery truck.

The union’s condemnation of violence is clear, as is its position that allegations of violence cannot be used to prevent workers from returning to work when the strike ends, after which a disciplinary procedure based on due process would come into effect.

ABI is now taking its allegations abroad, to those who are showing solidarity with the struggle, in under to improve its bargaining position. While the strike has forced the company to finally recognize that Saturday work needs to be remunerated as overtime work, ABI remains uncompromising on base wages despite the union’s proposals, preferring to talk instead of vouchers and cellphone allowances.

ABI claims that they pay better wages than some categories of private and public sector workers. We don’t dispute this, but suggest that it only means that those other workers badly need a raise.

On the urgent issues of precarious work, casual employment and owner-operators, what they don’t say in their letter is this: crew members with “black empowered” drivers, who now carry out over 70% of company deliveries, earn as little as ZAR 1,200 (112 euros). Prior to this “empowerment”, the prevailing wage was ZAR 6,600 (620 euros). Behind the talk about empowerment lies a savage attack on living standards.

The Human Resources Director also fails to mention that up to 1,000 casual workers – more than 25% of ABI’s workforce – are now employed by the company in production and distribution on a “temporary” basis. Some of these “casual” workers have been working on a daily basis for close to 19 years while being paid considerably less than permanent staff with no job security. Up to one-half of their substandard wage is skimmed by the labour brokers.

So while “casual” becomes “permanent” and “empowerment” takes a hatchet to remuneration, ABI insists that the issues of precarious employment and labour brokers be dealt with separately from wages, in a nebulous “forum”, and has even suggested that it be dealt with by the government, taking it entirely outside collective bargaining. While ABI is seeking to widen non-permanent, indirect employment and avoid responsibility for this growing category of insecure and poorly paid workers, FAWU is calling for a clear procedure for bargaining on these crucial issues.

FAWU has clearly indicated its readiness to compromise while defending its members interests and believes that a negotiated solution can be achieved through constructive negotiations. ABI is encouraged to pursue this course rather than engaging in public relations exercises which seek to blackmail the union and its members.