Is Transnet using race to determine salaries?

The port of East London. Image: Twitter/@TPT_Transnet

Marine workers are taking the state-owned ports authority to task over unanswered questions regarding different packages offered to white and black workers.

A recent strike at state-owned Transnet over salary discrepancies has shed light on how middle managers at the ports authority face what the marine workers deem to be “racial pay discrepancies between white and black marine personnel”.

The strike failed to take off after the Labour Court in Johannesburg granted Transnet an interdict. “Transnet is an equal opportunity employer and strongly refutes any allegation that its salary packages are determined by race,” said the parastatal. But the union and the marine workers insist there are grounds for their allegations.

South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) representative Reginald Nkonzo Goba at the Transnet National Ports Authority (Transnet NPA) says: “Salaries of junior staff are negotiated by unions. Most of the workers prefer to stay as junior officers because benefits are a hundred times better than the middle managers.

“Middle managers can’t take decisions, can’t contribute to discussions and can’t raise concerns. Being a middle manager is just a name or title that works against you,” he says. “They are not middle managers sitting in the office, they are foot soldiers that bring revenues to the company. You can call them supervisors as they contribute nothing to the company’s strategies. They just implement what their managers want.”

Transnet NPA corporate affairs and external relations general manager Moshe Motlohi says: “It is not always a requirement that where a position is evaluated at level F [middle managers], it will have teams or subordinates. This depends on the position’s outputs.”

According to senior staff, employees undergo a training period of about nine years to become middle managers. The first two to three years are spent studying at university, where the employee is introduced to theory. The next three years are spent training for time at sea. Then, Transnet NPA trains employees internally for another two to three years to become either tug masters or chief marine engineers. Rising to the job of boat pilot takes an additional three years. During training, candidates earn an allowance determined by the company.

“In the remuneration department, the mistake that Transnet [made] is that … 98% of whites are deciding who gets what. It’s few black people who are heads in that portfolio,” says Goba.

“The danger of that [is] if there’s a wrong person in such critical positions, that person will abuse that power for her or his own personal gain. It could be that they want certain races to earn better than other races.”

Structural racism

Historically, positions that required specialised skills – tug master, pilot and chief marine engineer – were held by white employees. When South Africa transitioned into democracy, black employees occupied these posts. During apartheid, these staff members fell under the bargaining council by special dispensation, which allowed them to negotiate their salaries.

In an email, Motlohi said: “Transnet positions are evaluated and ratified to determine the level a position should be graded. Tug masters, pilots and marine engineers’ positions came in at level F after the evaluation and ratification process.”

According to the marine workers, Transnet NPA allegedly revised its operation structure by creating a new category that would accommodate those occupying the posts once reserved for white employees. This new category would be classified as middle managers with no rights to bargain for their salaries.

“We speak about the vulnerability of a system that’s not corrected. In all the meetings we attend, they do admit that we have a serious overlapping of salaries. The reason … they don’t fix it is because people in remuneration … enjoy it,” says Goba. “Satawu is fighting for justice, let’s come up with a system that recognises each and every effort [that everyone] is coming with to the company.”

Salary discrepancies

“It’s been a painful 10-year journey of engaging with Transnet,” says Bheki Mkhize, the chief marine engineer officer at the Durban port, one of Africa’s major and busiest ports. He was appointed in October 2006. “In my appointment, although it was strange, I did not negotiate the package of my salary. I was told over the phone,” he says. His annual package at the time was R220 000.

In May 2007, the company appointed three more middle managers. Their annual salaries ranged from R240 000 to R295 000 despite having equal experience. The affected employees challenged this and were told that the issue would be resolved by August that year. Soon after this, the salary discrepancy was rectified and they were paid in terms of rank.

In 2009, Transnet NPA set the maximum entry-level package for middle managers at R350 000. But there are allegedly still discrepancies in packages to this day.

In the same year, the company appointed black and white tug masters. The workers allege that the latter were contracted on an annual package above the maximum entry-level, while the former were offered R60 000 less a year than their least qualified white colleague. This caused an outcry.

Impasse between marine workers and Transnet

“We started to challenge Transnet through a union. In 2015, we all took a decision that we cannot continue to allow this to happen,” says Mkhize.

“We said we will proceed with challenging the company whether unions help us or not. Those discussions resulted in a meeting on 14 June 2016 with TNPA’s [Transnet NPA] former group chief executive, Siyabonga Gama. He said, ‘Guys, we know about these discrepancies and I will correct them.’”

Motlohi says he was not aware of this meeting. The marine workers say they tried to resolve the salary differences until 7 December 2018, when “we were told that this thing will not be corrected. We were told, ‘If you want to correct this, you must have a one-on-one engagement,’” says Mkhize.

Confronted with a “toxic” and unfriendly environment – in which those who dare to speak up are victimised, according to employees – the marine workers organised a port leadership forum for managers.

“We were supposed to meet quarterly, but we can’t have minutes, we can’t discuss sensitive issues that affect us. They’ve turned it into a useless structure,” says Mkhize.

‘We will never stop the fight’

The court interdict is for a period of three months to 5 September 2019, when the Labour Court will deliver its judgment on whether Satawu should continue with the strike or “entertain Transnet when it says we should not” strike, says Goba.

Motlohi says Transnet NPA “does not have an appetite for a strike, hence will endeavour to ensure that a solution is found to resolve the impasse and prevent a strike action”.

The marine workers say they are tired of unfruitful engagements. Should the court rule in favour of the company, “we will see who will be driving those ships and tugs”, they say.

The union agrees with this sentiment.

“If the outcome of the case comes in favour of Satawu, we will continue with the strike. But if it comes in favour of management … we will find other ways of dealing with this matter until the whole world hears what we need,” says Goba.

This piece was first published by New Frame

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