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Strikes Cripple South African Rail Networks

South African commuters line up at a bus stop in Soweto on 17 May 2010 during a strike by rail workers

Transport workers in South Africa's commuter networks have joined their colleagues in the national rail network, who have been on strike for 10 days. The strike left millions of commuters stranded.

Two-million workers, who normally use commuter rail services in the major centers of South Africa, were left scrambling for busses and taxis, as the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) shut down all commuter services as a consequence of the strike.

One commuter in Soweto told the e-News television channel that finding a seat in a taxi was proving difficult.

"You can see the [long] line. There is no train, even the taxis are not picking us up. So, we do not know how we are going to land [at] work. Maybe 9 o'clock, 12'o'clock - but we will be there," said the commuter.

Like their colleagues in the national rail network, Transnet, PRASA workers are seeking a 16 percent pay increase, while the employers are offering between eight and 11 percent.

In addition, PRASA workers say they want their employer to drop plans to reduce allowances and overtime pay. PRASA chief Tumisang Kgaboesele told e-News that these costs are not sustainable.

"The main sticking point remains the new conditions of service. As I have expressed in the past that we spend a lot of money on overtime and allowances," said Kgaboesele. "Over the past financial year alone, we spent [500 million Rand] $66 million on that and what we have said to the union that the situation is not sustainable; we need to find ways to ensure that we efficiently and cost effectively run our system," Kgaboesele added.

Some analysts say that with the FIFA 2010 World Cup due to kick off next month, unions are seeking better deals than they would normally, because they know employers want to ensure there is no strike activity during the event.

Analysts have not yet assessed the cost to the economy of the commuter network strike, but say the economy is losing $4 million a day as a consequence of the Transnet strike.

Farmers have stopped harvesting some produce because it cannot be transported to local and international markets in a fresh state. Export goods are not reaching airports and harbors, and cargo vessels are stuck at the country's major ports, unable to load and off-load their cargo.

Unions and employers are meeting under the auspices of the South African Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration in an attempt to reach agreement.