Passenger bus sector does U-turn on pay hikes

Isaac Mahlangu Senior reporter
Passenger bus company Putco says it cannot afford to proceed with the 6% pay increase for workers. The sector says it is in financial crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Passenger bus company Putco says it cannot afford to proceed with the 6% pay increase for workers. The sector says it is in financial crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Workers are up in arms over major bus companies reneging on salary increase agreements, pleading poverty allegedly caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Early this year, unions representing employees compromised and dropped all demands and agreed to a 6% salary increase agreement which bus companies claim they can no longer afford.

Bus companies including major players in the industry such as Golden Arrow and Putco, which employ thousands of workers, have applied at the Road Passenger Bus Bargaining Council for an exemption on implementing the 6% salary increases agreed with workers early this year.

A Putco bus driver who has been with the company since 2010, who spoke to Sowetan in condition of anonymity, accused the company of abusing its employees despite their years-long loyalty to the company.

"Even now, we drive old buses that don't have heaters in cold weather yet the company says it can't afford the very same 6% it pushed for during the negotiations," the driver said.

"The company can't push for 6% then use Covid-19 as an excuse, our increases should be funded by last year's profits."

Putco spokesperson Matlakala Motloung said its application for exemption "is based on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the
financial position of Putco which was already under pressure due to the long standing underfunding of subsidised bus contracts in Gauteng.

The application affected 3,200 employees, with many of them still awaiting their May UIF Ters benefits as per the reduced shifts they now work.

"Currently there are no alternatives to consider due to the impact which the Covid-19 has had on Putco's revenue generating ability, and the fact that any one bus can only carry 50% of its carrying capacity due to the social distancing protocols.

"Putco has lost cash revenue of more than R150-million since the start of lockdown," Motloung said.

She said they had to incur additional costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) which had not been budgeted for.

"We lost revenue from private hire, which was mainly income from special events and funerals," she said.

This has seen already under-pressure workers facing a new double whammy as some are facing retrenchments with smaller operators shutting shop, while those still employed don't earn full salaries as they now work staggered shifts.

SA Transport Workers Union's road passenger national sector co-ordinator Solomon Mahlangu blamed Putco for "refusing to co-operate" despite receiving government subsidies.

"We accepted the 6%, abandoning other demands from workers which included benefits, but now we are told that these companies, including Putco, cannot afford a 6% salary increase," Mahlangu said.

Gary Wilson, the secretary of the SA Road Passenger Bargaining Council (SARPBAC), described the move by bus companies as an attempt to undermine councils.

"This is an attack on the bargaining councils and collective bargaining. unions who abandoned all their other demands to assist the industry survive are now angry as they agreed in good faith but these companies are turning on them," Wilson said.

He said hundreds of smaller operators, especially those serving the tourism sector and scholar transport, have already shut down.

"Our industry is at a crossroads right now with so many companies closing down, they're in their hundreds," Wilson said.

Golden Arrow spokesperson Bronwen Dyke-Beyer confirmed that it had made application for an exemption affecting its 2,600 workforce.

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