Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

THE National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) on Sunday called off its strike in the vehicle parts sector, accusing German car giant BMW of "blackmail" and saying: "In China and Zimbabwe they would never be allowed to hold the country to ransom."

Numsa said its members were set to return to work today, ending a strike that has cost the sector about R20bn, slashed exports by 75% and dealt another blow to South Africa’s already bruised image among foreign investors.

The union, which represents 70,000 of the sector’s 300,000 unionised workers, settled for a 10% increase in the first year of the agreement, followed by increases of 8% in the next two years.

It had originally demanded 10% increases every year for three consecutive years.

While Numsa also failed to force employers to halt labour broking in its workplaces, it said: "Numsa’s national leadership engaged with government on the issue of labour broking and equal pay for equal work and we were assured that the legislation would be passed before year-end."

Numsa was unmoved by claims that its strike action had further hurt South Africa’s ailing factory sector and soured investor sentiment.

It said the Treasury’s welcoming of the International Monetary Fund’s call for a more flexible labour-market regime vindicated its argument that "our African National Congress government is pursuing neoliberal and anti-working class policies".

"We refuse to be blackmailed … the strikes we have had are not extraordinary, they were normal," said Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim.

Instead, the union launched a scathing verbal assault on BMW, which criticised South Africa’s unions last week and warned that it was putting its plans to expand capacity in South Africa on hold.

Numsa said yesterday that it would "refuse to be blackmailed by BMW, the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa or any other neoliberal analyst/economists for our right to strike". "CEOs of car manufacturers showed no leadership whatsoever during the auto and motor industry strikes," it said.

"The likes of BMW must remember that it is taxpayers’ money that subsidises the profit they so generously make in South Africa."

Numsa said it would "seek a formal meeting with the leadership of BMW to discuss its threats to the South African economy".

BMW spokesman Guy Kilfoil reiterated BMW’s commitment to South Africa, but said the company had lost 13,000 units of production, which could not be recovered.

Efficient Group chief economist Dawie Roodt said the end to the strike was "good news", but that it would be impossible to quantify the true damage caused by the industrial action.

"In previous strikes, investors were annoyed but we have picked up a change in the mood of investors. BMW is a good example. But I don’t think we can really evaluate damage to the economy because we don’t know what the economy would have looked like.

"South Africa has been getting negative attention since Marikana, but this strike is showing labour unrest in South Africa may be the rule instead of the exception," Mr Roodt said.

He said South Africa could not be compared as an investment destination to China or Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe is a totally different example. Profit margins are larger because of risks. You can’t compare South Africa to Zimbabwe or China. The Chinese are much more productive than we are. Hypothetically, if you wanted to compare South Africa to Zimbabwe then we have to at least halve wages to get the same profit margins."

Numsa Western Cape secretary Karl Cloete rejected what he called "blackmail" by BMW.

"They (BMW) receive taxpayers’ money in the form of a subsidy, which is an incentive scheme to attract car manufacturers to our country. If they go to China, the Chinese Communist Party takes 51% in that company. If they go next door to Zimbabwe, Uncle Bob will take 51% on the indigenisation programme," he said.

Mr Jim said the strike had been "difficult" for the union as employers had refused to accede to its demands for a ban on labour brokers, and for "equal pay for work of equal value".

"This motor industry strike took four weeks (to resolve) simply because employers have been arrogantly and stubbornly sticking to the ‘peace clause’. In this respect employers have threatened centralised bargaining in that individual employers have given unilateral increases (and higher plant-level increases), thereby seeking to undo centralised bargaining and bribing workers not to participate in the national protected industry strike.

"We shall, after the strike, assess and examine the motor industry collective bargaining regime and take the fight back to employers," he said. "The employers are forcing unions to contract out of the Labour Relations Act. They want to limit workers’ right to strike by maintaining a peace clause. During the three-year period employers want to maintain that workers cannot raise a matter on the shop floor that has an own cost."

Mr Jim said Numsa had also hoped to do away with wage thresholds, but it managed to shift the threshold by 17%, from R115,000 a year to R135,000.

He said Numsa rejected any suggestion that its strike could have soured investment in the country, and demanded that investors follow through with investments they committed to when entering South Africa.

BMW "can only be profitable if they continue to invest in South Africa", Mr Jim said. "They will not find the kind of cheap labour that they find here. We will not accept the BMW blackmail. We expect them to bring back that investment."

Numsa added that coming wage talks with tyre producers would probably be resolved without the need for a strike.

Mr Kilfoil said that while BMW remained committed to South Africa, it also had a presence in China. " BMW has invested in two brand-new vehicle production plants in China in the last five years to go along with the manufacturing plant our company has already had there for some time."

He said the Automotive Production and Development Programme — and the Motor Industry Development Programme before it — were "the only reason for original equipment manufacturer investments in South Africa". "Both of these programmes mitigate against South Africa’s natural geographic disadvantage for vehicle production and export," he said.