A ship enters Durban harbour. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART
A ship enters Durban harbour. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART

SA’s embattled economy could be hurt further when activity in the country’s busiest ports grinds to a halt with a planned protest by members of the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) on Thursday.

The union warned on Tuesday that it would embark on a total shutdown of the country’s ports over salary discrepancies at Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA), where it claims whites earn more than their black colleagues.

The affected facilities include the port of Durban, one of the busiest ports in Africa, Richards Bay, Cape Town, East London, Port Elizabeth, Saldanha Bay and Mossel Bay.

Satawu representative at TNPA Reginald Goba said about 300 employees were expected to down tools. They include marine pilots who help steer ships from the ocean into the ports and vice versa; tug masters, who assist pilots; and chief marine engineers, who maintain the ships and operate the engines.

Goba said these skill-sets are such that their withdrawal would result in a “total shutdown at all ports”.

“On average the mariners move three ships per two-hour interval,” he said. “These vessels ferry goods worth millions of rand, bringing the potential loss due to the strike action to billions of rand.”

Goba stressed that the economy, which grew by 0.8% in 2018 and is projected to grow to 1.3% and 1.7% in 2019 and 2020, respectively, “will come to a standstill so they can take us seriously”.

TNPA acting CEO Nozipho Mdawe said: “We have assessed the impact of the strike action and have activated contingency measures though our business continuity plans.”  

She said TNPA would continually update its customers “and directly engage with them on shipping matters to ensure minimum disruption to port operations”.

Satawu, a union federation Cosatu affiliate, served TNPA with a strike notice on Monday after the Commission  for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration issued a certificate in April.

“When you ask the management about [the alleged race/pay discrepancy], they argue and say ‘No, this person negotiated better than you ’,” he told Business Day on Tuesday. “There are instances where the pay gap between two colleagues, who are on the same level, is like R500,000 per annum. We can’t accept that.” 

He said two meetings between Satawu and TNPA failed to reach a satisfactory agreement, despite the company “admitting to pay discrepancies across all divisions”.

Satawu threatened to embark on a secondary strike if management does not address its issues by June 3.

A 2018 report by PwC, found that SA’s ports outshine the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa’s, with Durban ranked 25th in the world in attractiveness.

Ports are an important aspect of infrastructure in attracting foreign direct investment. The report found that a 25% improvement in port performance could increase a country’s GDP by 2%. It said Transnet invested almost R1bn in port and freight infrastructure maintenance and acquisition of cranes, tipplers and dredgers in SA ports in 2017.