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"Universities across South Africa are undergoing a process of restructuring. Parallel to this process has been a national review of tertiary education. Recommendations from this process are extensive, including mergers between different universities, and between universities and technikons. ... Recent restructuring initiatives on many campuses appear to be narrowly focusing on access for some students while facilitating the `exit' of many workers on campuses through retrenchments and outsourcing." (jbv)

vol 15 no 4

University Workers: Exclude them Out
Bridget Kenny and Marlea Clarke

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, VOL 15 NO 4, October 2000,
Page 27
"South Africa"



Bridget Kenny is a National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) member and a member of the Concerned Academics. She works as a researcher in the Sociology of Work Unit at Wits, but writes in her personal capacity. Marlea Clarke is a member of the SAR editorial group who has been working at the University of Cape Town. 

Universities across South Africa are undergoing a process of restructuring. Parallel to this process has been a national review of tertiary education. Recommendations from this process are extensive, including mergers between different universities, and between universities and technikons. It has often been stated that one of the key objectives of restructuring is "to facilitate access to learners previously disadvantaged." Indeed the University of Cape Town (UCT) highlights this as being central to its mission: "to be flexible on access, active in redress, and rigorous on success." This emphasis on redress has had some success, with some groups of students (mostly the growing black middle class) benefiting from improved access. However, recent restructuring initiatives on many campuses appear to be narrowly focusing on access for some students while facilitating the `exit' of many workers on campuses through retrenchments and outsourcing.

Restructuring and outsourcing at UCT

Suraya Jawoodeen (the Nehawu Western Cape Tertiary Education Branch Secretary) argues that there are two general patterns emerging in terms of restructuring, with similar consequences from each. Historically disadvantaged institutions (HDI) justify retrenchments and outsourcing with financial arguments, arguing that financial constraints necessitate a reduction in staff. Fort Hare, Venda, the University of the North, and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) have all initiated restructuring (leading to retrenchments) due to financial difficulties. For example, last year, after a bitter battle with the university management (with violent confrontation between striking staff, students and management), 400 workers accepted voluntary retrenchment packages and another 25 were retrenched at UWC. Historically advantaged institutions (HAI) such as Wits and the University of Cape Town are in a different position. Although both universities also use cost saving arguments to support restructuring moves, plans to retrench workers and outsource work are primarily justified by non-financial arguments. HAI universities argue that they must focus on "core business needs" and outsource those functions and activities that are defined as non-core. Core activities are those that are part of the "academic mission": teaching, learning and research. Despite different motivations behind recent restructuring initiatives at HDIs and HAIs, the result is similar: full-time permanent staff in non-core services are retrenched and their work outsourced to outside companies paying lower wages.

HAI such as Wits and UCT see their `core business' in a narrow manner. Both universities are currently implementing changes aimed at outsourcing most "non-core functions", with fairly similar processes underway. Restructuring began first in 1998 at UCT, with some security services outsourced to an outside company on a "trial basis" for 18 months. This approach was packaged as a compromise - the university's initial proposal to outsource all security on campus had been rejected by National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) but university management argued that the proposal was in line with UCT's Strategic Planning Framework 1996 to 2001, a planning document accepted by both the union and University Council in 1997. Thus, agreement was reached that initial outsourcing would be limited to some areas of campus and would be evaluated after 18 months before additional outsourcing of security took place. Workers employed by the outsourced company (Armourguard) are reported to earn the minimum wage provided by the Wage Determination (R7.00 per hour [$1.50 Cdn]) in comparison to the minimum wage of R15.00 per hour UCT security staff receive. If benefits are included, the average wage package for all security operations (including all security staff - guards, supervisors and senior security staff) amounts to R32.96 per hour per UCT employee. In contrast, the average wage cost for the same service is only R18.56 per hour per Armourguard employee.

Despite continued opposition from Nehawu, additional services were outsourced the following year. On 31 August 1999, 267 UCT employees were informed that they were being retrenched as of 30 September. Tasks performed by these workers (such as gardening, maintenance, cleaning) were outsourced. Some retrenched workers were then employed by the companies awarded the contracts to supply these services. Similar to the large disparities between wages and benefits paid to UCT security staff versus Armourguard employees, workers have reported a significant drop in pay when re-employed after cleaning services were outsourced. For example, Supercare Cleaning hired staff (many of them retrenched UCT staff) at the minimum wage (R6.00 per hour) set out in the Sectoral Determination for the Contract Cleaning Sector, with no additional provision made for a retirement fund or a medical fund. UCT staff, in comparison, were paid a monthly package made up of a basic salary component, a bonus cheque (pro-rata of a thirteenth cheque), a housing allowance, and UCT's contribution to the provident fund and medical aid. Employees who did not own a house or belong to a medical aid scheme were paid an allowance in lieu of the subsidy or employers' contribution. Converted into an hourly rate, UCT cleaning staff received between R11.00 and R14.00 per hour. Thus, UCT staff earned approximately double what sub-contracted workers employed by Supercare are now being paid.

Nehawu and opposition

Although workers opposed outsourcing, the union was in an extremely weak position to fight the changes. The previous year a strike had been called when negotiations over wages broke down. However, union structures were weak, and shop stewards were ill-prepared for the university's intimidation tactics. Police were called in on the first day, striking workers were harassed, and before the end of the week, Nehawu was forced to call off the strike. Soon after, a number of strategic blunders on the part of Nehawu shop stewards resulted in the university cancelling the union's recognition agreement. Consequently, the union office on campus was shut down and the union's right to a full-time shop steward and to access other resources was withdrawn. Nehawu then took the case to the Labour Court, arguing that the outsourcing be treated as "a transfer as a going concern" (using the Labour Relations Act to support this argument) or, alternatively, that the retrenchments were not fair in that UCT had not considered alternatives to outsourcing. The Court ruled in UCT's favour.

Having lost the court case, and too politically weak and disorganized on campus to resist further outsourcing proposals, Nehawu structures at UCT were effectively sidelined as the university moved forward with restructuring. The campus once had one of the sharpest and strongest recognition agreements in the country as well as strong union structures. Now, the union has been almost completely wiped out at UCT. How did this happen? Nehawu was in a politically weak position when negotiations around restructuring came to a head, both because of strategic manoeuvring on the part of the management and because shop steward structures were weak and key shop stewards not accountable to the union membership. Now, without a recognition agreement, without full-time shop stewards, and with internal squabbles consuming the energy of the union on campus, workers are dependent on regional Nehawu structures to advance alternative proposals to outsourcing and to rebuild the union on campus.

Interestingly, opposition to current proposals has largely come from some members of the UCT Council. Substantive questions raised in Council meetings about the process slowed it down. As a result, the outsourcing proposal Council will consider at the November meeting is a more moderate one than what was initially supported by University management. Council is likely to vote on a "gradual outsourcing process." It is proposed that remaining security services be outsourced. Wages and benefits will likely be similar to those currently paid by Armourguard - about half the wages paid by UCT for the same job. Current staff will be offered voluntary retrenchment packages or early "incentive retirement." Staff that don't take either package will be put on re-deployment lists and placed in suitable jobs on campus.

However, weak evaluations of the services provided by the outsourced security company, and concerns expressed by workers about lower wages and benefits paid to outsourced workers, don't seem to concern university administrators. Leila Patel, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Wits, referring to experiences like those of UCT, was quoted as saying: "It is worth noting that all the functions identified for service partnerships have already been outsourced at quite a number of South African higher education institutions who have in fact been enjoying the benefits for a number of years." Clearly it is the university, not workers, who `benefits'.

Restructuring of Wits support staff

Meanwhile, the story from Wits demonstrates that strong, well organised and militant union structures on campuses don't appear to be enough to stop current restructuring processes. In late August of this year, 613 support services workers at Wits University were retrenched. Over 90% were black workers. Most have not found jobs, and like workers at UCT, those `lucky' enough to be hired by private contractors (a reported 250 out of the 600) now earn, on average, a third less in basic wages and have no benefits. Not surprisingly, the decision to retrench the support staff workers has drawn fire from unions, student organisations, academics and international activists. Like UCT, management at Wits has attempted to sideline opposition. Previous employees of Wits have been called into meetings with contract management and told in no uncertain terms that they are "no longer Wits employees" (according to one cleaner). Wits University has traditionally been one of the strongest branches of Nehawu. In 1989, Nehawu won a recognition agreement with Wits after a long and protracted struggle for recognition set against a history of management efforts to establish a black staff association. These workers, including cleaning and maintenance staff, technical staff assistants, clerical staff, catering and bus drivers, some higher skilled technical staff and employed security guards have been Nehawu's power base. While Nehawu has had membership beyond these lower grades, the bulk of its membership has come from these groups of workers.

After years of struggle against apartheid administrations fighting racism and hypocrisy in Johannesburg's seat of `liberal education', Nehawu's 800 strong signed up membership at Wits has been levelled in one blow by Wits' new administration, ironically an administration which Nehawu helped to appoint. Union membership stands at 351 - down from 800 before retrenchments. The support service `restructuring' is only the beginning in the university's restructuring plan called Wits 2001. Academic personnel are now facing retrenchments and already 22 job cuts have been announced for the Arts faculty alone. The plan seems to leave aside noble goals of institutional democratic transformation.

Transforming Wits?

In the early 1990s on Wits campus there was a concerted struggle waged by workers and students to effect transformation. Nehawu shop steward Thabiso Motaung says of those days: "They were not happy with Nehawu being on campus. The very same people who were there at that time, the apartheid minded administrators, are here now." He adds, "Management has never been in the forefront of transformation. The adversarial relations [with Nehawu] are not likely to go away now." Nehawu argues quite clearly that Wits 2001 is an attempt to derail the process that was set up as the outcome of the earlier bitter struggle: "The Wits 2001 concept contradicts ideas and aims that people had around the transformation process. It brings in other dynamics, like profit generation." Indeed, Wits' enthusiasm to restructure boasts the neo-liberal prescriptions of downsizing employment and marketizing education, to say nothing of privatizing public institutions [see Barchiesi, this issue].

Transformation and consultation have been pushed aside in the process. In March 1999, the university announced a broad process of consultation to consider changes to support services. Its aim was meant to "achieve increased service quality and efficiency." A private company (apparently handpicked by the University) was hired and paid over R4 million to develop `in consultation' a restructuring plan. The consultants conducted surveys with different constituencies assessing existing services, cost comparisons with other university and industry norms, and facilitated a review process in which they formulated options for restructuring. Stakeholders `participating' in this process included academic staff, student representatives, support service staff, unions, staff associations, and managers.

Throughout this process, unions and middle managers repeatedly pointed out flaws in the consultants understanding of operations and costs. However, these and other criticisms and amendments offered within the review process were rarely incorporated into the final models. The review process recommended serious alternatives to outsourcing, including internal restructuring and building managerial capacity, and these models were costed and came out lower than the straight outsourcing recommended by the consultants. A group established on campus to oppose the process, "Concerned Academics," critiqued the review. They argued that the consultants' report was based on a poor understanding of outsourcing and its costs, careless research, and a "pseudo-consultative" process. Nevertheless, the University's Council accepted the recommendation to retrench and outsource, and have repeatedly claimed that the process was `highly consultative'. Deputy Vice Chancellor Leila Patel says that "compelling reasons emerged to set up service partnerships with specialised service providers" and that "these reasons primarily concerned the cost of service (and potential cost savings), the need to improve the quality of services and the need for university management to focus its time, attention and strategic effort on its core function (the academic mission)."

Protest and pain

Protest and lunch-time pickets by Nehawu and other groups opposing the outsourcing have been met with hostility on the part of university management. It responded by submitting two applications to prohibit future protest on campus, one of them lodged at the Labour Court against Nehawu. If the University wins the interdict, forms of protest, including `noise-making and singing' which disrupt university activities, would become criminal offenses. This, of course doesn't sit well with unionists, a wide range of staff and political activists. Reforms to the Labour Court and new labour legislation passed under the ANC government (such as the Labour Relations Act) were intended to extend more protection to vulnerable workers. Instead, Labour Court judgments (like the UCT Nehawu case) interpret section 197 of the LRA in a way that allows outsourcing to continue. Rather than tightening up problems in existing legislation, recent amendments proposed to labour legislation will facilitate retrenchments and outsourcing. Indeed, proposed amendments are a retreat from the ANC election manifesto. Instead of stopping massive job losses, as was promised, proposed amendments will actually speed up retrenchments.

Not surprisingly, debate raging on campus underlines a sense that under the new economic order, opposition to restructuring, its material impact on South African workers, and its reracialization of access to basic rights of citizenry is unacceptable. Indeed such action is characterised as `ultra leftist', anti-nationalist, and a betrayal of loyalty to one's own institution.

A letter written to The Mail and Guardian defending the decision to retrench 600 workers argues that "we spend more than we earn" and, thus, restructuring is inevitable. "We also acknowledge that the process is uncomfortable and disruptive. This is a characteristic of change." Once through the pain, however, they say the university and the community will reap great benefits. A new cultural precinct will be created with art galleries, coffee shops, a cinema and a theatre. And they offer, "We hope that as people start to visit the cultural precinct next year they will feel that restructuring in the faculty of arts at Wits has in fact been worthwhile not only for the university but for the city, too." Vice Chancellor Bundy says hopefully, "Tighten your seat belts: we're in for a bumpy ride, but at the end there will be exhilaration."

With all this euphoria of reconstructing a `profitable' institution, one forgets that 600 workers become a seemingly easy sacrifice. Not to mention that most black students on campus cannot now afford to eat lunch in surrounding Braamfontein restaurants. Instead of bringing workers' and students' needs into plans for a new Wits, we are left with a shopping mall built on the backs of retrenched workers. The racial division of labour in South African institutions, including Wits, means that black workers bear the brunt of change. And, now they are threatened with not being able to protest that fact. Nehawu is struggling to find ways of responding to this crisis facing many of their members. As they acknowledge, they must quickly find a way of saying `enough is enough', and moving to a position where they can rebuild the union, service members, and engage constructively with management to make universities a better place for workers and students. Until then, they are left firefighting: negotiating voluntary retrenchment packages and struggling to protect a few jobs at some universities while hundreds of jobs on other campuses are lost.

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

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