Eskom can 'deny its workers right to strike'

ESKOM could be right in arguing that workers at its plants provide an essential service, which prevents them from going on strike.

Independent labour analyst Sandile July said yesterday that the minimum service level agreement, an issue that remains outstanding in the recent battle between the power utility and three unions in its plants, gives an employer powers to deny workers the right to strike.

July said the Labour Relations Act gave concerned parties a provision to determine which areas could be regarded as an essential service.

"To a certain extent Eskom is right. When you say the service is essential, everybody is, even an administration clerk, because you will need people to log on calls for those who do core business to attend to the queries," July said.

Eskom and the National Union of Mineworkers, National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and Solidarity reached an agreement on Sunday that averted the strike the unions had scheduled for yesterday.

The main issue was a wage dispute in which the unions initially demanded a 15percent wage hike and a monthly housing allowance of R5000. After protracted negotiations that involved Cosatu and the Department of Public Enterprises, the parties eventually agreed on a 9percent wage increase and a monthly housing allowance of R1500.

But the unions are prepared to fight minimum service level further, saying not every worker at Eskom provides an essential service.

NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said employees such as clerks, gardeners and security guards could not be regarded as essential because by "definition they do not entail life-and-death situations".

The unions had taken the matter to the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, which Eskom challenged at the labour court, saying the latter had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

The unions have taken it to the labour appeal court and are awaiting the outcome.

Eskom's head of human resources Bhabhalazi Bulunga said the tiff was about the contents of the deal.

"We are only disagreeing on the contents of the agreement, which is about the list of people that could go on strike," Bulunga said.