A wage dispute has been declared by the two trade unions recognised by the Transnet Group.
The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) and the United Transport and Allied Trade Union declared the dispute with Transnet on Friday after talks deadlocked at the Transnet Bargaining Council.
According to Satawu, the dispute arose after Transnet failed to move off its zero percent offer, which it had tabled previously.
The opening demand for the unions was 20percent, which has been adjusted down to 12percent. Jane Barrett, Satawu policy research officer, said: "The company also failed to adequately respond to other demands, including a demand for improved maternity and pregnancy rights, parity in various allowances across the divisions, and an undertaking to agree on a timetable for the implementation of a new grading and salary progression system."
A conciliator will be appointed in an attempt to settle the dispute and the next meeting is expected to take place during the course of this week.
If an agreement is not reached, the unions said jointly that there was a high possibility of strike action by Transnet's 55000 rail, engineering, port and pipeline employees.
There is a strong feeling among the unions that Transnet management will publicly defend its proposed wage freeze by arguing that it came with a commitment not to retrench any workers in this financial year.
"Using the threat of retrenchments as a bargaining chip in wage negotiations is not correct or fair to workers," Barrett said.
She said skilled workers in the Transnet Group were already underpaid relative to the market, resulting in a dire shortage of electricians, traction linesmen, engineering technicians, millwrights, diesel fitters and diesel electrical fitters.
"What is also irking our members is the fact that at the end of the 2007-08 financial year, bonuses totalling R41,6million were paid to executive managers.
"There are also strong rumours of retention bonuses having recently been paid to some managers."
In a statement the unions noted that they were mindful of the decrease in volumes, and therefore revenues, which Transnet has suffered as a result of the economic downturn.
"However, our members have actively participated in a wide range of cost-cutting activities, including a reduction in overtime and the redeployment of staff."
After numerous attempts, Transnet had still not responded at the time of going to press.