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Fuel Industry Strike Threatens to Plunge South Africa into Chaos

Thousands of fuel and motor industry employees in South Africa have joined a national public service strike in the country, but many others continue to resist union calls for them to stay away from work.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, or Numsa, is demanding a 20 percent wage increase for its members. But fuel and motor sector employers are offering workers a mere six percent salary hike.

Economists say a prolonged deadlock will lead to widespread petrol and diesel shortages. This, they assert, will result in severe inconveniences to private citizens and great damage to South Africa’s economy.

Fuel workers paid ‘peanuts’

All over the country, fuel stations, motor manufacturers and car dealerships are closing. Many of those that remain open are severely short-staffed and are operating at minimal capacity.

Negotiations between Numsa and employers’ associations are ongoing, but there’s little sign of an agreement being reached soon.

“The Numsa demand is just too huge; we can’t meet it; not even close,” says Reggie Sibiya, chief of South Africa’s Fuel Retailers’ Association.

But Numsa’s convinced it’s justified in demanding such a significant increase as it asserts its members – especially fuel pump attendants – are paid “peanuts.”

“I take home about 2,000 rand ($ 280) a month,” says Johannesburg attendant Dumisa Biyela. “How can we be expected to survive on wages like that? I have three kids. It’s inhuman.”

At protest gatherings all over South Africa, fuel sector workers have urged Numsa to “fight” employers for a better deal for laborers. Unionists are urging all South African fuel industry employees to join the strike.

Some workers defy strike orders

Some fuel pump attendants, however, continue to report for work…. but in civilian clothes.

“If we wear our uniforms, the strikers will victimize us. We may even lose our lives,” A Johannesburg attendant, who asked to remain anonymous, told VOA.

Police have arrested a number of striking petrol pump attendants after they allegedly assaulted their colleagues who had reported for duty in defiance of the union call to support the industrial action.

Another worker at a Johannesburg filling station, Moses Nhlaka, told VOA he and his colleagues would not join the strike, as they were not Numsa members. But another attendant, Bryan Phaahla, says a “full blown” strike in the fuel sector could happen at anytime, although there’s “confusion” amongst workers about this.

“Yesterday we were on strike. We just came (to work) today. We don’t know what’s happening, whether this strike is still on or it’s still off,” says Phaahla.

Fuel supply in jeopardy

Some workers at fuel supply depots are now also on strike, boosting concerns that pumps across South Africa could run dry in the near future.

“This would cause chaos in all sectors of our economy. Basically, the country would come to a standstill. But we are hoping at all costs to avoid such a situation,” says Numsa spokesman Castro Ngobese.

Yet chaos there is in some parts of South Africa. In Johannesburg, petrol station owner Dave Hutchings, assisted by two relatives, was hard at work filling customers’ cars. He said some of his staff had reported for work on Thursday morning, only to be “intimidated” into leaving their posts by striking colleagues.

Hutchings is convinced he’ll suffer “incredible losses” because of the strike.

“We have to close all our (fuel pumps).... for the night shift. There’s no way we can stand here and man the forecourt, just two or three of us, for 24 hours,” he said.

Transport disrupted

Private South African citizens are also suffering. Nanny and domestic worker, Maria Mnguni, works in Johannesburg, but returns by means of minibus taxi every weekend to her home village 200 miles away, in Mpumalanga province.

Clutching the crying baby she’s paid to take care of, she says, “I can’t go home because the taxis they don’t have the petrol. It’s very bad for me because I am staying far from Joburg; I can’t see my kids; I can’t see my children so it’s bad for me. It’s very bad!” she exclaims.

Economist Paul Roodt says the fuel and motor industry strike has the potential to “cripple” South Africa’s economy.

“We’re still dealing with the effects of the global economic recession in these industries, especially the motor industry. We’ve just seen an upturn in the motor sector, but this strike will probably undo all this good work and see us going back to square one, which is not a good place to be at all,” he maintains.

“It is up to the employers to end this strike; our position is clear but we are willing to negotiate in good faith,” says Ngobese.

He adds, “We are going to spend the next few days to go back to leaders of the union, to go back to members, and have a proper discussion, about the current offer that’s on the table. We’re hoping that by the end of the coming weekend, we (will) find a clearer way forward about what to do with the offer and what to do with the strike.”