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Numsa calls for boycott of Putco over ‘inhumane’ treatment of workers

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Picture: Boxer Ngwenya / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken April 25, 2013 – Putco buses at the Putcoton depot near New Canada, Johannesburg. About 120 members of Numsa employed by South African transporter Putco, who were suspended following an unprotected strike in 2022 over a wage dispute, have been subject to undignified conditions including a lack of access to decent toilets at the company’s depots.

By Peoples Dispatch

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has called for a boycott of passenger bus company Putco for “waging war” on workers. It has condemned the “inhumane” treatment of at least 120 workers who have been suspended by the company, after Putco tried to withhold wage increases.

In 2022, hundreds of workers at the company had gone on strike to demand the implementation of a 6 percent wage increase and the payment of an annual bonus dating back to a 2020 collective agreement. Putco had sought an exemption from paying the increase citing a lack of funds, despite the fact that the company had continued to receive government subsidies even with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated shutdown.

Putco’s plea was ultimately dismissed by the Exemptions Committee.

In 2022, after over 2,000 workers embarked on an unprotected strike at two depots in Soweto and near Pretoria over the company’s refusal to provide the increase, Putco sent out dismissal notices to 1,000 workers.

Numsa subsequently intervened, and while the union was able to have the majority of workers reinstated, some workers are currently subject to disciplinary measures under the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Speaking to Numsa’s Workers Power, the union’s National Organiser, Frederick Mabasa, said that 140 employees had been placed under suspension with pay in the aftermath of the strike for misconduct. Out of this, around 120 are members of Numsa while the rest belong to four other unions. Amid the ongoing proceedings at the CCMA, the union stated that Putco had also tried to limit the number of workers who could provide evidence. The application was dismissed.

“Putco provoked workers into withdrawing their labour because of their greed. Now it is continuing its reign of terror on these workers by treating them inhumanely,” the union said in a statement.

Numsa has stated that while suspended workers are ordinarily only meant to attend hearings, and otherwise remain at home, Putco has unilaterally mandated suspended employees to report to its depots in Tshwane and Soweto in the Gauteng province every day and sit there.

Workers at the Zandofontein depot in Tshwane have described the conditions as resembling a “cage” or “prison,” as they have been made to remain in a wire fenced-area manned by security guards.

Workers have been denied interactions with other employees at the company and have been denied access to the site’s regular drinking water facilities and decent toilets, being forced to use portable toilets. According to the union, these portable toilets were only provided after Numsa released a media statement detailing that Putco had given workers “bucket toilets”.

In case a worker is sick and unable to come to the depot, Putco is demanding an affidavit from a doctor with personal details of the illness. In case a worker is unable to provide the document, Putco has refused to pay them for the sick days and has so far even dismissed at least 15 workers, the union said.

“Putco has benefited enormously from the generosity of the state through subsidies. They also benefited during apartheid and even after. It seems the brutality of the Apartheid state is part of its legacy which is why it treats workers so cruelly,” Numsa said.

Putco had played a central role in South Africa’s white supremacist apartheid system, transporting hundreds of thousands of Black workers from segregated townships and Bantustans to white suburban and industrial areas. Fare hikes imposed by the company, at a time when Black South Africans were confined to areas far away from their jobs, led to protests in the form of boycotts, including the historic 1957 Alexandra bus boycott.

Responding to Numsa’s accusations, Putco released a statement on February 20 stating that it had “reviewed suspension conditions due to several issues, including employees engaging in secondary employment and not attending disciplinary hearings”. On the issue of the conditions in which suspended workers were sitting in at the depots, Putco claimed that the designated areas “were large enough and suitable for them to remain indoors or outdoors as they may prefer”.

It added that it had “uncovered fraudulent [medical] certificates” from suspended workers after which it has implemented a verification process, requiring an affidavit— “those who have completed the process will be paid in full”.

On February 21, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim responded to Putco’s statement. He stated that Putco had “unilaterally decided that the certificates are fraudulent” and had “not provided any evidence to back that up”. He listed three incidents where Putco had allegedly withheld the salaries of workers who had been injured or were unwell and had been taken to the hospital, including a woman who had collapsed during a hearing at the CCMA.

He further stated that Putco had “no right to review the conditions of suspension without consulting all parties, especially labour.” Moreover, while Putco has stated that “proper ablution facilities are available and cleaned daily”, Numsa workers in Soweto have alleged that the Putco has emptied out the portable toilets in an open field just a few meters away from the workers, in a residential area

Numsa has announced that it will march to Putco’s office on February 23 to deliver a memorandum of demands to the company.

The struggle of workers at Putco is taking place at a time when unions including Numsa are engaged in contract negotiations with companies in the bus sector, ahead of the expiration of the pay agreement on March 31.

Among the key demands being raised by the workers include the provision of primary healthcare, which means a medical aid or insurance cover for workers in the sector, a 10 percent wage increase across the board, and to double the allowance of the double drivers (alternate drivers that accompany the primary driver over long distance journeys) to R900 (US$ 47.8).

The talks hit a deadlock last week after employers’ reportedly only offered a 4 percent increase, which in itself was conditional on the union doing away with all its other demands.

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch