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Publication Details

Reference
Ngwane, Trevor & Hlatshwayo, Zamani  (2010) How our universities became sweatshops . The Mercury Eye on Civil Society column : -.

Summary
WORKERS at South Africa's universities have seen wages and conditions of
service nosedive because of "outsourcing".

This happened in the context of the post-apartheid government's shift
away from Reconstruction and Development in 1996, when a neo-liberal
macroeconomic policy was adopted. Soon, most universities ditched
long-standing workers, led by the University of Cape Town.

Mamphela Ramphele, then UCT vice-chancellor, fired hundreds of workers
and arranged for replacement by contract companies. Outsourcing meant
draconian pay cuts and the loss of numerous worker benefits (study
leave, fee discounts, medical aid, housing subsidy, etc).

Workers had no choice but to fight back. After many of years of
struggle, UCT workers won a code of conduct binding contract companies
to minimum labour standards, including a R3 200 a month basic wage. This
victory must now be extended to similar workplaces.

For example, University of KwaZulu-Natal workers are suffering. Cleaning
and gardening staff take home R1 200 a month, and security personnel R2 000.

A decade of wage cuts and deteriorating working conditions, combined
with a draconian disciplinary regime, means these workers have their
backs against the wall.

They have formed a workers' forum to publicise their plight and, along
with sympathisers on campus, argue that the best solution is for the
university to "in-source" them, to restore them from exploitative
contract companies on to the university payroll.

The contract companies are, for all effective purposes, labour brokers.
They add no value to the work done by workers for the university, but
are inserted into the labour process, effectively as a middleman. This
erodes the relationship between the university and its workforce.

Squeezes
Before outsourcing, UKZN paid the worker for work done; today it pays a
contract company boss who, after taking the lion's share, pays the
worker peanuts and squeezes tighter.

Last year, UKZN cleaning workers went on strike when an hour was taken
off their working day and their wages reduced likewise while the
workload remained the same.

Outsourcing also allows employers to abrogate their responsibility for
industrial relations, that is, nurturing the employer-employee
relationship. UKZN authorities generally wash their hands of worker
well-being. The result, over the last couple of months, is that contract
company bosses have been waging a reign of terror.

CP Rogers's letter to the editor (The Mercury, February 23) makes a
preposterous statement, brilliantly exposing the anti-worker mentality
that prevails in our society: "the (university) non-academic staff is
hugely bloated and grossly inefficient" and "would be fired within a
week in the private sector".

Most non-academic personnel in universities are employed by for-profit
contract companies. They do get "fired within a week", and this is
exactly the bone of contention. The hiring and firing of workers without
regard to their rights and needs must stop.

The overarching neo-liberal policy after apartheid meant South Africa's
rich got richer and poor got poorer, because the system is designed to
facilitate the flow of public money from state coffers into the private
pockets of company directors and shareholders. Julius Malema is only one
example of the overall problem that has seen an exponential rise in
profits over the past 30 years while wages have effectively gone down.

The global economic crisis has exposed the shortcomings of neo-liberal
ideas such as Rogers's blind faith in the efficiency of the private sector.

The credo against state intervention in the economy was exposed as so
much hogwash when all the capitalist states channelled billions of
dollars of taxpayers' money to bail out the failing banks.

The time has come to expose labour broking: workers' experiences suggest
that outsourcing is bad news, benefiting capitalists and the
"tenderpreneurs".

Our universities are supposed to be leaders of knowledge and
enlightenment, but they need to do more than just talk, they have to
act. This is an open challenge to all university leaders to put their
money where their mouths are, to protect the rights of all workers on
campuses, in particular, contract workers.

What is really getting the workers' spirits down is the daily harassment
by managers and supervisors in the course of work.

Workers are moved around and shifted away from familiar sites.
Comparable UKZN staff are paid at least six times the wage of a contract
worker. Contract workers complain that the hardest jobs on campus are
reserved for them.

More worrying is that many university contracts had been rolled over
every month for many years and not put out to tender as required by
government policy.

This means the contract companies do not have their work assessed or
their contracts reviewed on a regular basis. Only now is this set to
change, we hear.

Struggle
Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, a former UKZN staff member,
alluded in a speech last year to the need to contest neo-liberalism at
universities.

Meanwhile the ANC, SACP and Cosatu have pledged a to-the-death struggle
with labour brokers.

Yet still, there is little respite for contract workers employed at
universities.

Instead, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan encouraged labour broking in
his Budget speech, with a new state subsidy for a two-tier labour market.

What Gordhan and President Zuma forget is that in South Africa, a
two-tier labour system already exists.

Very poorly paid workers are employed by labour brokers, while other
workers are properly employed by their employer. Then there are millions
sitting at home unemployed. Class apartheid is alive and kicking.

At UKZN, our scholars include statisticians who measure inequality using
the Gini Coefficient while university authorities create and perpetuate
that inequality. Universities cannot be both fountains of knowledge and
sweatshops to enrich labour brokers. It is immoral and unsustainable
that the cost structure of a university should be based on the
exploitation and humiliation of labour.

Exploited workers have no choice but to continue with their struggle.
They need all our support in the struggle against outsourcing. Our
ultimate goal is to build a society where compassion, collectivism and
solidarity are the dominant values rather than individualism,
competition and acrimony.

In our quest to remove all forms of oppression and exploitation from
this earth one of the obstacles we will need to remove are the
shibboleths of neo-liberalism.

# Trevor Ngwane is a masters student based at the UKZN Centre for Civil
Society and Zamani Hlatshwayo is an active member of the UKZN Workers'
Forum.

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