The Durban Toyota plant. Picture: REUTERS
The Durban Toyota plant. Picture: REUTERS

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) says a local unit of Japanese car manufacturer Toyota has reinstated thousands of members it fired after they embarked on an unprotected strike over an incentive bonus.

Numsa KwaZulu-Natal regional secretary Mbuso Ngubane said the union managed to negotiate the reinstatement of its 2,895 members fired by Toyota SA on January 24.

The agreement comes five days after Toyota SA CEO Andrew Kirby announced a R4.28bn investment in local vehicle assembly and parts supply during the company’s annual “state of the motor industry” address at Kyalami in Johannesburg, in January.

Kirby said the investment would inject R2.85bn a year into the SA economy and create about 1,500 new jobs.

In a brief statement on Tuesday, Toyota said that the unprotected strike by Numsa members at its Prospecton plant in Durban had ended and that striking employees had returned to work “with no dismissals”.

An unprotected strike occurs when disgruntled employees elect to down tools in support of their demands without following proper pre-strike procedures such as referring the matter to the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, among other platforms.

Toyota SA spokesperson Clynton Yon told Business Day that while the strike started on January 22, production only started to be affected on January 30. He would not say what the financial implications of the strike have been on the manufacturer, noting, however, that “lost production volume would be made up”.

When pressed for confirmation that Toyota had initially fired  almost 3,000 employees, Yon referred to the company statement, saying: “The strike was unprotected, meaning it was illegal. We had to do certain things; not that we wanted to do it, but we had to do it. You heard what Numsa said in its statement and you saw what we said in our statement.”

The agreement with Numsa, SA’s largest trade union, also comes a few months after it and the Automobile Manufacturers Employers Organisation (Ameo) signed a multiyear wage agreement in September, following months of intense negotiations that threatened to result in crippling industrial action.

Toyota SA is a member of Ameo, which represents other original automotive equipment manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Isuzu, Nissan, Ford and Volkswagen (VW). A total of 610,854 vehicles were produced by the manufacturers in 2018, with 351,139 of them going to export markets in 155 countries.

Ngubane blamed Toyota management for the unprotected strike, saying it gave workers the impression that they would receive a “quality bonus” because of the good work they were doing.

“Unfortunately, in January it became evident to employees that the bosses had a different view and the bonus was no longer forthcoming,” he said. “At the same time, the employer requested workers to work overtime and they agreed, provided the employer first pay the quality bonus. Eventually, they deadlocked on this issue.”

Ngubane said Numsa officials were prevented from intervening in this issue by Toyota, preferring to deal with the dispute internally. Numsa members became frustrated and “embarked on an unprotected strike”.

Following the successful discussions between Numsa and Toyota at the weekend, the axed employees have since returned to work and no further disciplinary action will be taken against them, said Ngubane, adding that the quality bonus issue would also be reviewed.

“We will be meeting Toyota to discuss long-term stability within the company. We urge [Toyota] and all employers in general to be open to engagement in future so that ... we can prevent such situations from spiralling out of control.”

The automotive sector is crucial to the SA economy as it employs 87,777 people directly and 380,725 indirectly. It contributed R178.8bn to the fiscus in 2018 through exporting vehicles and components, and has invested about R52bn into the local economy since 2010.

The seven Ameo members have jointly forecast a total investment in capital and equipment of R39.4bn in the five years from 2019.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za