Alfred Vanqa and Michael Nqushu tried hard to get work near their homes in Queenstown. After a long search they realised that their chances of getting employment in the area were slim – the job opportunities were very few. It was a year ago when they decided to pack their bags and take a train to Johannesburg.
Alfred and Michael were lucky this time. A Boksburg firm called Argus was desperately looking for employees. They accepted the job of security guards with this firm. The two workers were happy because they knew that their families back in Queenstown would be pleased with them.
Their happiness, however, did not last long. They soon realised that they could not do much with the low wages they got. For many months they worried but they did not say anything to the other workers. They were afraid that if they opened their mouths to complain they would be put on the next train back to Queenstown. But one day in February this year they decided: “Aikhona! Enough is enough! We cannot work like this!”·
Later, that same day, these two workers arrived at the offices of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&GWU) in Johannesburg. After patiently listening to their problems, Jane Barret, a T&GWU organiser, told them that the union was their home. Since that day in February they have never looked back.
BECOMING A UNION MEMBER
“When we started to work here we were earning R300,00 a month from which R20,00 was deducted for accommodation. We worked a 12-hour shift every day without getting any days off. Sometimes when a fellow security guard did not arrive for work we were forced to work the next 12 hour shift – in other words we had to work, twenty-four hours. We did not get overtime pay for working these long hours,” says Alfred.
“We then heard about a trade union which organises security guards, office cleaners, and so on. Michael and I decided to visit the offices of the union. The union told us what their aims were, and how to join. We were impressed and we joined on the spot.
“When we arrived at the hostel we told fellow workers about this union. More than 80 workers decided to join. Later, Alfred and I were elected shopstewards,” says Alfred.
WAGE DETERMINATION 460
Alfred went back to the union’s office a few weeks later to collect a government document which says how much security guards should earn. This document is called Wage Determination 460. It says that security guards should be paid a minimum wage of R413,00 per month.
Back at the hostel Michael was waiting for Alfred. When Alfred arrived with the document at the hostel, Michael helped him to arrange a meeting to discuss Wage Determination 460. The workers were disappointed with the government’s minimum wage. But they were angrier still when they found out that their employers, Argus, were paying them far below the minimum wage.
“While we were still discussing this document, an Argus supervisor called Steyn, walked in. It was obvious to us that he had heard that we had been meeting and that we wanted to take some action. He looked at all the people who were there and left without saying anything,” Alfred says.
“Some moments later he came back with the police. One policeman argued with Michael about the holding of the meeting. The police then arrested Michael and another worker. Nobody knew why they were arrested. So, those workers who were supposed to go to work for their evening shift decided that they would not work unless the two workers were released.
“Later, Steyn brought Michael and the other guard back. Michael was injured. His ears were sore and he had a pain in his kidneys. We decided that the following day, on Monday, we would take the matter to the union to ask for advice. The workers who had boycotted work, decided to return to their jobs,” says Alfred.
“NOT FATHER CHRISTMAS”
On Monday morning while Alfred and Michael were still at the hostel, Steyn arrived. Says Alfred: “He told us to report to the Argus head office in Boksburg to collect our pay.
When he said this, we concluded that we had been fired. Still we decided to go to the union offices as we had planned.”
After Alfred and Michael had told their story to the union, T&GWU’s Jane phoned Argus’ boss, Kobus Esterhuizen. Esterhuizen said the two workers had not been fired but that they were being called to the company offices because they were “creating unrest at the hostel.”
Says Jane: “This man’s language was very bad. He called the two workers ‘kaffirs’ and also accused Michael of being drunk when he was arrested. He said to me ‘if they want to work for the union, I am prepared to let them go.”‘
Esterhuizen said to the union: “This man Michael is working for two bosses – the union and me. I found a whole lot of union forms in the control room after he was there. How would you like it if people in your union were working for two bosses?”
Esterhuizen continued: “I have never had a problem with workers here in nineteen years. If Michael had only brought his complaints to me like all the other guards, instead of running to the union, it would have been better. What you people do not realise is that it does not mean that since Mandela is out of jail then it’s Christmas. If Mandela can pay these workers, let him do so. I am not a Father Christmas of the workers.”
ARGUS HITS BACK
A few days later Michael was transferred to a farm near Brakpan. The union said the transfer was unfair. “I have the right to transfer any worker to any workplace,” Esterhuizen told the union.
“I would be happy if Michael does not accept the transfer. Then I will get a court order against the union for harassing me and involving itself in the running of my firm. If the union worries me again, 70 people will be out of work because I will fire all the workers who are members,” he said.
Michael told us that he was not the only one who was transferred. Alfred was transferred to Randburg, more than 30 kilometres from where he lives. When Alfred complained that it was too far, Kobus offered to give him a lift and drop him there.
Alfred says a day later Esterhuizen pretended that he was taking him to Randburg. Instead he took him to Booysens, just outside the Johannesburg city centre and left him there. Alfred found his way back to the hostel and refused to accept the transfer. Michael also continued to work where he used to. He only went once to the farm and then refused to accept the transfer.
NO MONEY TO PAY
In the meantime the workers continued to be members of the union. They were not frightened by Argus at all. It was not long before Esterhuizen and his company realised that the workers and their union meant business-and were not easily intimidated. So, Esterhuizen decided to talk to the workers and their union.
One day Michael and Alfred found Argus’s lawyer at the union offices. The lawyer had come to tell them that the company was going to pay the workers the money they had been underpaying them.
The lawyer said because Argus did not have enough money, the workers would be paid in installments. The workers were very pleased to hear this good news but they knew that their struggle was still far from being over.
We asked the two workers whether their working conditions have changed. “Yes,” Alfred replied. “The firm treats us better than before. There is a new spirit of co-operation and understanding. Now we can even take days off even though we do not get paid for them.
However, there are still many improvements that can be made to improve the working conditions of security guards. The minimum wage set by the government is too low. What can a person with a family to support do with R413,00?” he ended angrily.
It took Esterhuizen a long time to accept that he could not just bully the workers. The workers and their union were fighting back. And Esterhuizen realised that he had to negotiate with the union.
Michael and Alfred say: “Joining the union has helped us a lot because now we know our rights and the bosses know this. We are happy that we fought our small struggle and won. Now our boss knows that we are also people.
“We would like to encourage other workers who have not yet joined a union to do so. As for ourselves, we will never regret the day we said: ‘Aikhona! Enough is enough!'”