Thabiso Bopape from a workers' committee that has been involved in ongoing strikes in the Post Office and that founded the Democratic Postal and Communications Union (Depacu) talks about the struggle of casual workers to ban labour brokers and to be directly and permanently employed by the South African Post Office (Sapo).
This discussion took place on 10 October, 2014, and so there have been some developments since then. The strike referred to by Thobiso was called off shortly after the interview, after the Minister intervened to address their demands, but a group of workers organised under the Communication Workers Union (CWU) remains out on strike at the time of publication.
The cause of this [struggle] is the system of casualisation in the form of labour brokering. There are people that have been working for fifteen years as casuals whereas this is a job that you can be appointed [to] permanently.
What brought this about is that we had a belief – in the unions and formations that were there at the Post Office when we arrived – that they were going to address our issues but, ten years down the line, there is actually nothing that is coming from them. And yet there's agreements that they've actually signed with the company, that this thing should be dealt with, but seemingly they are not actually enforcing them to happen. So we felt that they're not working in our interests, we felt that we needed to organise ourselves and then move out of where we believed we were going to get salvation from.
We had to do a bit of research and check as to who our target market is and our target market is the casual workers that we [then] organised. I must say that it was not an easy task, but the strategic point that we worked on is that this is a national problem and without resources you cannot reach nationally. But because Gauteng is the heart of the Post Office we then said, "If the heart stops, obviously all other provinces will then catch up as and when time goes on. But something needs to happen."
We then formed ourselves [into a committee] and mostly it was the system itself that we we're fighting around, of casualisation. We challenged the Premier of Gauteng, we challenged the Minister of Labour, of Communication and all those things through Cosatu. With Cosatu those things did not work because ultimately they then succumbed and started talking of regulation. They then moved out of the initial idea of banning labour brokering. If you know [the history], you'll know that this programme that was there – that has now died – of Cosatu banning labour brokers was started by us [together] with them in the belief that it was going to happen.
We then mobilised all the casuals. What we did is that, before we could take any action, we made sure that everybody who's a casual understands as to why we go around [doing] this. Some of the people, [even] with the little money that we're getting – we'll it's not all about money, with the unsatisfying job conditions that we have – some of them are satisfied because it's the least that they can get. But it's not what they are supposed to be getting. So we made sure that we get them to understand, so that they come out of their comfort zone that they're at, so that they see the bigger picture. We visited many places. We even went to them – obviously there's criticisms, there's people who would not believe in what you're doing – but we forced ourselves to them. We had pamphlets, through WhatsApp we had WhatsApp groups that we're talking through to conscientise people that the problem here is the system itself. Yes, we might be blaming Post Office for using labour brokering but as a government parastatal it's the system itself.
What we then did is that we [decided we] are not interested in the labour broker companies. We are going to challenge the Post Office directly because talking to the labour brokers is not going to help because we do not need jobs from them – we need jobs directly from the parastatal itself. When we saw that people are now understanding what is going on we then decided to put tools down. It was in 2011 in December. We then stopped rendering our services. Now, it had an impact because, I'm not sure of the percentage, but about 70% of employees, especially in the mail business, are causals so if all casuals are not rendering their service surely the business is going to stop. And 70% of Post Office revenue is being generated by mail business so if the mail business is not operating the business as a whole is at a standstill. The retails can work, the transport can work but it is not going to sustain the business. Then we decided to do that to show [the Post Office] that they actually do not need labour brokers, they actually need us directly. So, we then engaged with them. Well, there are certain things that happened, you know that when there's a struggle there's things that happen which we would not condone, you know, but we had to visit the managers' houses because at work they run away. You would ask for a meeting and they would not respond, in the meeting they would respond negatively.
We ended up coming up with an approach of visiting them in their houses. To go and talk to them and say, "We are here, we're hungry. You are having a better job at our expense. We do not have food, we want you to share the food that you have in your house with us." So, that thing assisted until they came to their senses and started meeting with us and then we started talking about how then do we get rid of these labour brokers so that people get to be directly employed by the Post Office. For us, we viewed that as an achievement because, one, on the side of job security then you know that your job is safe. You know directly who is your employer and you've got a bigger opportunity in terms of benefits and uplifting yourself at a personal level. So for us we viewed that as an achievement. That is why we then accepted it, to say, "even though our demand is that we need permanent employment for all casuals but for now we can settle with being out of labour brokers and being taken in directly by the Post Office".
How it would work is that the Post Office, in whatever they give to the labour broker, the labour broker would give you half of it. So if we are then employed directly by the Post Office you'll then be getting double of whatever the labour broker was giving you after keeping half of what the Post Office gave them. So it's still on a contract basis but directly through the Post Office. In terms of monetary value and job security it is an achievement but it does not actually address the main cause of why we then want to be permanent.
We then, even now, engaged in many meetings. Post Office is quite reluctant to come up with a long-term plan of how to deal with this. They're coming with a piecemeal approach that they will take this number of people, then they will take these people, then when they are supposed to be absorbing them permanently they then change. You know, they're trying some means of reversing the situation itself.
From our view, they are trying to run the labour brokering system within the Post Office itself. What has now sparked this current impasse is that most of the people, it's not only Joburg, it's Joburg, Western Cape, KZN – nationally the Post Office is on strike and it's only now that other people get to understand where we are going. So in terms of their understanding they might be a bit behind us but obviously we'll have to push them up to speed. What we are calling on is that all casual employees must then be made permanent and then as a stakeholder because we are employees, this is our company, South African Post Office – we're South Africans. We will then collectively with the company come up with programmes of how then to expand the business itself. Obviously that is for our own benefit because it's not all about being permanent. And then you're permanent then what? Obviously, permanency comes with costs and all these other things. Well, it's a government parastatal [so] they'll have to deal with that. But we'll also have to play a part in terms of rebuilding the business itself. Obviously by the action that we are taking by the strikes and all that the customers are running away and if they run away we can fight to be permanent but if there are no customers surely we do not have a job.
Hence we are saying, let it be a once-off that everyone is taken in permanently. Then from there we [will] come with programmes of how then to attract business into the company so that we sustain whatever challenges might have come about in terms of making those people permanent. So, obviously many people, there's 6428 casuals, so 6428 families would then be having better lives. It's not only those 6000 people who would have got opportunities, but their families, their kids, that is also going to change their lives. That is where we actually [are], where the struggle is at now. It has now evolved from us challenging the Post Office, yes we have challenged it, we have achieved what we wanted [by] getting rid of labour brokering inside [the Post Office] but it has now moved to the stage that we also need to play a part in terms of rebuilding it. Because the whole idea is not to collapse it. So we are at that stage now. We're talking about playing a part in how the Post Office is actually run.
As I said, you know a government parastatal is for the people. Now, people have to be stakeholders within the company itself because the people who are on the ground, who are doing the job, are the ones who know the company more than people who are in managerial positions. Because you'll find that the CEO has never been a postman. He doesn't know how to sort the mail, he doesn't know what the challenges are from one point to another and all those other things. So if you bring those people into a bigger forum of management then we are going to come up with a better turnaround strategy that is going to work best for the business itself and also for the employees themselves.
What we did is that, as I said, there was this union which I do not want to name because they are not our enemy, our enemy is the Post Office, they are also our fellow comrades even though we are quite different. That we believe. But then after we formalised ourselves [as a committee], after we achieved that people get to be employed directly by the Post Office and almost 2000 by now are already permanent in the Post Office, we realised that we are actually moving back if we do not form a union that is going to take this forward. Because, as per the recognition agreement of these unions that are there – by the way there are three unions now in Post Office, which [are] CWU, South African Postal Workers Union and the Democratic Postal and Communications Union – now that we are reaching that stage of people being permanent, in terms of the recognition agreements they do not cover the casuals in their bargaining unit. Now that the people are becoming permanent they're now going back and falling into the bargaining unit of these unions, which is where we ran away from. That is how the idea of this union came about. That we need to have a union whereby we are still going to be able to be in charge of this programme because it has not reached it's ultimate stage. Well, a struggle doesn't have an ultimate, it always evolves and takes different stages. It continues. So it came as that result that we cannot go back. We need something, it's more of we have changed our identity but in a technical way in that now the people are going to be permanent. When we have this union they now fall under our bargaining unit and we then classify them, especially as it is a programme. Those who have been employed permanently through this programme of ours are then covered by the Depacu bargaining unit. Even though they are permanent they do not fall under those unions representing them. By virtue of them being a product of this programme they are then covered by us.
So, we are solely responsible and hands-on with this programme because we can't leave it to [the unions] where we ran away from because it's likely that they will reverse it because they could not do anything within the ten years. We then registered the union [and] on the 27 May we then got a registration certificate from the labour department. Then we had engagement. Two months down the line we got a recognition agreement with the company because we're holding most of the workforce. That is how it then came about.
Depacu is a fully recognised, fully fledged union that is now competing with these unions and we are a threat to them.
In terms of that committee, we had to play a mafia-style kind of operation. One, what we did is we had a committee of nine which we called the "Top Nine". If you can go to any casual and ask, "Do you know of Top Nine?" they will tell you. We would call ourselves Top Nine. That top nine, we had to operate undercover style in that, one, we knew that management doesn't know us, we're not employed by them [but by the labour brokers]. Now we made it in a form as if there are different committees. Mind you we had mobilised everybody to be with us, but in terms of our identification as the committee, when we met a different management we would call ourselves different names. Now they believed it was a different committee. When we meet others we call ourselves another committee so that we do not want to give them a sense of, "This is the team and we can target this team and deal with this team". They tried to do that but they could not identify us because, according to them, there's many committees that are there but only to find that there's just us. Within the whole struggle itself, it was in Gauteng at that time, we made them to believe that as much as everybody who's a casual is ours, they're not united, they're in groupings. So hence this committee, as I'm saying that when we met certain people we would call ourselves different people yet we represent the same people. When we meet with others we call ourselves different people so that they do not focus on one committee. In their mind they would think that there are different committees. So they had that mind that there's different committees, until ultimately we had one big meeting where we then rocked up. They already knew that there's this "top nine" and they had our names and they knew us. Now we were targets in that. So when there started to be meetings or engagements, when we'd say our real names they would not honour that because they know that, "Eish, these are the problematic people. So maybe these ones we can listen to them, these ones we can't". But it is one and the same people, they just never knew.
Ultimately it came to a point whereby there was one big meeting where we then said, "This is us. Those people that you think they are, this is us." Now everybody is there. That one knew us as these people, that one knew us as someone else. But now they all recognised us and now we're starting to show ourselves. So we had to have a tactical way of operation. In terms of the spadework on the ground, we were not doing the spadework on the ground. We had people that were doing the spadework. Reason being that there are things that happens, you know when there are this type of things... Now, knowing very well that we are the targets, there are certain things that the members have to do that we do not even want to know about. As long as whatever that they do brings attention to the company. So most of the time we [were] engaging with the company, we [were] engaging with the customers. Another strategy that we came up with is that, one, we have to hit them where it hurts the most. Just only stopping operations is going to bring frustration from the customers so it's going to divert the programme itself. Now we also need to conscientise the customers to say, "Look, we're not in this because we want to [be]. We're not disadvantaging you in terms of [not] delivering your goods because we want to. It's because of this problem that we have."
We once marched to UNISA and went there and said, "Look, we are your students and we're not getting our study material". In the corridors in the meetings obviously Post Office would not say, "I have a crisis, I can't deliver" and all those things. They would simplify it and say, "No, we're working with the problem and things are working". We went to the Post Office and we took photos of the study materials that are stuck there, the videos and all that. We then went there (to UNISA) and said, "Look man, we are a committee and we're your students and we have a problem that we're not receiving the stuff". They then said, "No, Post Office is delaying" and we said, "No no no, they're not because the people that delivers them is us. So we are telling you that it's not". We then showed them the photos and said go and speak to them [the Post Office] and conscientise them that the only way for them to sustain yourselves as customers is for them to fix this problem, and you also have no choice because you need these things to be delivered. So you need to play a role in terms of convincing the company itself to sort out this mess, unless you've got an alternative plan of course. Also your Edcom and all these kinds of businesses. So that is also another way that we managed to get the attention of the company because there was nowhere they could run away. We hit them with production, we hit them with the customers and all those things.
We went to the media. We once marched to SABC, also SABC did not assist us with anything whatsoever. Within this whole strike we've called them, we even went to them and closed down SABC to say, "Why are you not covering this issue?". You know. But even with closing SABC itself that thing was not even broadcast and now we started to understand because CWU is also representing at SABC and SABC is obviously friends with Post Office because they are all in communications so they would cover for themselves. We then opted for independent media. We then went to local radio stations, local newspapers. Those are the things that assisted us. There's Jozi FM in Soweto, that's one of the radio stations that we worked with that assisted us. There's Soweto TV that we are still working with that also assisted us in terms of exposing this thing. So our main aim was to expose this thing but at the same time of how, when it is exposed, then what from there. It's not all about exposing it and then leaving it like that. After it has been exposed then what, moving forward? So that is how it came about that we get to achieve this thing. So we had to work in many various ways depending on the dynamics of that particular time and the challenges that we are facing. But I must say that it was not easy and it is still not easy even now. It is still a struggle that is going on because we have not reached it [our objectives].
In February [of this year], as we've been moving on, obviously we are not the employers. The company doesn't want to come with a long-term plan, a once-off plan. It's at a piecemeal kind of approach. We had an agreement that there's going to be 900 people that are going to be employed permanently nationally. They did not honour that agreement so this strike now [October 2014] came as a result of [the fact] that they did not honour their agreement. Now it also changes our mindset in terms of should we then continue this piecemeal approach? Anyway we cannot shut it out because even if one person is being taken permanently it's an achievement for us, but we are talking about 6000 people. So they did not honour their agreement on time. By May, people should have received their contracts. So this strike was to push pressure to them to say, "Something needs to happen". Even though we are still engaging we have found you are not coming with a long-term solution. But there needs to be movement. So, as I'm here, when I left there last week we had a meeting with the Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Siyabonga Cwele, and also those other two unions. On the side of the agreement we have then agreed that those contracts are being issued as I speak, but I'm also told that CWU has not stopped its programme because it says that Post Office doesn't have money and people cannot be made permanent. So I'm not sure who they are representing.They even went to Gauteng HR office and I'm told that they took those contracts that people have signed and tore them up. But there's people who are getting contracts, who are now being converted permanently. But the problem is that, as we agree with the company we determine, in terms of the list, as to who should then be going in as there needs to be some kind of criteria in terms of who should be there because if we leave it open anybody can just bring somebody from the street and put them in. What they are now doing is giving out contracts but it's not in line with the list that we have agreed upon. There's people that don't qualify that get appointed but at the same time we cannot say, "No reverse it". The more people that get to be appointed and the more they make these problems the more it opens options for us to push this. So people have been getting and signing contracts but it's at a snail pace.
This current strike is in its third week but the strikes have been going on for the past three years. If I may tell you that the other thing that has pushed the company and also the Minister to come on board and solve this thing. The week before last, on Monday, we converged all the casual employees and we then took trains and went to the head office of the Post Office. We then barged into the head office of the Post Office and the delegation went to the CEO's office and we engaged with them. But we could not find each other. We then took over the head office and then chased everybody, including the CEOs and everybody, out. We then took over the head office and said, "This is our company. Up until you come up with a solution of saying if you're giving people contracts or not we're not going to leave here". There were almost 500 people there. We slept there, outside in the cold at the head office. The following day there were no operations. Now nobody could even access it. Now it was us that was working at the head office, we ambushed that head office. That was one other strategy that has now pushed this to say, "You can sit in your fancy offices but at the end of the day that is my office because I am an employee in this company. I am also a stakeholder within this company". So that thing of a sleepover at the head office, it was women, all of us as employees and it was not a planned thing that we were going to be sleeping over. I do not think that there's anywhere where you've had people sleeping over at work, fighting the thing and all that. We just needed this thing to come to the attention of bigger people because the management that is there doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. Ultimately, it was on a Monday, on the Thursday the Minister came over and called a meeting with the board and us and everything. We are currently at the stage whereby we are working on a turn-around strategy of how then to fix up the problems that came about in terms of them using the labour brokering and, in a way, killing the business and also us moving from labour brokering into the Post Office and the impact it has caused so that we do not leave with this problem. Obviously every struggle has its own problems that it brings onboard so we want to fix those problems because, as I said, the whole idea is not to create problems but to sole problems and make things easier.
There are situations that are beyond one's control at some point. Yes, it's not good for the community because they are not receiving their things. I'm not receiving my letters. But at the same time we have to address the issue, hence we are now at the progress that we are working on a turnaround strategy. Probably by this week or next week, from what I've gathered, is that the strike could come to an end with an agreement that we have so that we go back and also service. But within this whole struggle we always conscientise the community to say, "Look man, it's not that we are doing this deliberately but it is this problem". We make them to understand why are we then doing this. Surely somebody who is awaiting their letters, when they understand that these people are actually fighting because they are being enslaved and all these things, it will make sense to him [to say] that, "Well, even if I'm not getting my mail they are fighting for a good cause". So we try, even though we don't have much means, but we try to make them understand that it is not because we just want to go on strike but there is this problem. Probably you have a child that is working and the same problem that I have is the same problem that you have in the house. He or she is the breadwinner, she is working and you're hoping that as this is a parastatal she's having a better salary and all that. This little salary that she comes [home] with doesn't cater for everybody. So when you fight for this, even yourself, you are going to get an assistance because if he or she gets a better job your life also gets to change. In terms of people getting their things [mail], it's one of the things that are beyond our control because at the same time we cannot be choking the Post Office and then at the same time say, "No we'll then deliver this one".
In closing what I want to add is that with this union that we have formed it's not only about getting casuals to be permanent. It's beyond that. There's many issues that we also want to tackle. There's a critical issue of people's pension funds in the Post Office. It's alleged that the pension fund monies are being misused and all those things. With the formation of it, the focus was on getting people to be permanent but slowly but surely it's evolving in that we need to deal with other issues so we're also addressing other issues because now that people are being made permanent we then have to talk. Because after people become permanent then what? Does it mean that the organisations then dies or what? We're covering many other issues that are there and slowly but surely we'll be getting there. Most of the old permanents that are there are looking up to us that we should be doing this but there's a bit of skepticism in terms of coming and joining us because they've been disgruntled by the union that is there. They are quite skeptical in terms of saying, "Ok, when we go there won't they be doing the very same thing?". So one thing that we want to do [is that] we are coming with a different way, or a different approach, of how unions must operate in the Post Office. Because if we go with the same kind of style as the unions which are there have been operating with we're as good as them. Because we formed because we were disgruntled by them we are going to come with different type of things. In terms of negotiations we are going to come up with different types of how to negotiate. Not that old type of style where that one seeks 10%, that person [another amount].. we're looking at many other ways of doing that because things have now changed. It's no longer the same as before. You can't be doing things that you've been doing ten years ago as if it's ten years back. Things are ten years forward so we also need to evolve.