CityPress - - Business - DEWALD VAN RENS­BURG dewald.vrens­burg@city­

Some em­ployer groups in the me­tals and engi­neer­ing sec­tors think they have an iron-clad bar­gain­ing chip to get unions to sign up for an al­most un­prece­dented low­er­ing of pre­scribed en­try-level wages.

That chip is the prospect of drop­ping wages to an even lower point, on a wide­spread scale, if no deal is reached.

Should that hap­pen, it could spell the col­lapse of the Metal and Engi­neer­ing In­dus­tries Bar­gain­ing Coun­cil (MEIBC), the largest pri­vate sec­tor bar­gain­ing coun­cil in South Africa.

Long-stand­ing de­mands that the sec­tor’s wages dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween large and small em­ploy­ers seem to have a fight­ing chance this year – for the same rea­son.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween this year and past years is that the em­ployer side of the MEIBC has frag­mented, with only four em­ployer groups now seated at the ta­ble.

His­tor­i­cally, wage talks in the MEIBC were largely de­ter­mined by the Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of SA (Numsa) strik­ing deals with the Steel and Engi­neer­ing In­dus­tries Fed­er­a­tion of SA (Seifsa), a fed­er­a­tion of em­ployer as­so­ci­a­tions.

The Na­tional Em­ploy­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of SA, a mi­nor­ity em­ployer group, has spent the past few years fight­ing against these deals and their ex­ten­sion to the whole sec­tor, which re­quires the assent of em­ploy­ers rep­re­sent­ing half the sec­tor.

But Seifsa’s largest mem­ber, the SA En­gi­neers’ and Founders’ As­so­ci­a­tion (Saefa), has bro­ken away.

An­other group, the Con­sol­i­dated Em­ploy­ers’ Or­gan­i­sa­tion, grew large enough to claim its own seat at the ta­ble, chang­ing the bal­ance of ne­go­ti­at­ing power.

A new deal will al­most cer­tainly re­quire all the groups’ assent to be ex­tended to the whole sec­tor.

“If there is no deal, it all de­volves to noth­ing. Numsa has a lot to lose,” said Ross Wil­liams, chair­per­son of Saefa. “If there is no deal ex­tended, what will peo­ple pay?” If there is no ex­tended deal, all the non-par­ties would very likely set their en­try-level wage at R20 an hour, be­ing the im­mi­nent new na­tional min­i­mum wage, said Wil­liams.

How­ever, the em­ploy­ers hold out the prom­ise of a low­ered en­try-level wage that could be R30 an hour.

“We want a stag­gered wage sched­ule in a sin­gle agree­ment,” said Wil­liams.

“We have to av­er­age the wages down over time.” The deal that em­ploy­ers want would ex­plic­itly not per­mit low­er­ing the wages of any ex­ist­ing work­ers, he added.

Em­ploy­ers are of­fer­ing in­creases of less than 6%, while the unions are at be­tween 10% and 15%.

Wage talks are cur­rently dead­locked while a fa­cil­i­ta­tor me­di­ates.

“We have not yet an­nounced a de­ci­sion to go on strike,” said Numsa spokesper­son Phakamile Hlubi.

“Once we have re­ceived the strike cer­tifi­cate it will be eas­ier to map a way for­ward and we will also be able to say when the strike will take place.”

A cer­tifi­cate would al­low all the roughly 300 000 work­ers in the sec­tor to strike. In the pre­vi­ous round of talks in 2014, the sec­tor saw a month-long strike.

If there is no deal, it all de­volves to noth­ing. Numsa has a lot to lose. If there is no deal ex­tended, what will peo­ple pay?

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