South African Strike Shuts Plants, Disrupts Public Transport

(Bloomberg) -- A strike by South African unions to demand an increase to the proposed national minimum wage shut down vehicle manufacturing plants and disrupted public transportation in some of the nation’s main cities.

The one-day national strike was called by the South African Federation of Trade Unions, a group of 30 bodies representing almost 800,000 workers that says the hourly minimum wage of 20 rand ($1.61) amounts to “slave labor.” The group, formed following a breakaway from the ruling party-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions, also wants the government to do more to address poverty and create jobs and scrap proposals to make it more difficult to strike.

Several thousand people joined protests in Johannesburg and Cape Town, while marches were also staged in four other cities. The strike is a slight to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who negotiated the minimum wage last year when he was deputy president and hailed it as a victory for worker rights. It also bodes ill for the African National Congress, which has traditionally commanded strong support among workers and is gearing up to contest elections next year.

Almost all the country’s automotive plants were shut, said Nico Vermeulen, director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa. Carmakers with a presence in South Africa include BMW AG, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

‘Skeleton Staff’

“One plant in the Pretoria region is operating with skeleton staff,” Vermeulen said by phone. Company and union officials will discuss how to make up the loss of production, he said.

Thirty-four percent of 537 companies surveyed by the National Employers Association of South Africa have been affected by the strike, with 23 percent experiencing a complete stay-away, according to Gerhard Papenfus, the group’s chief executive officer.

State power utility Eskom Holding SOC Ltd.’s workers weren’t allowed to go on strike because it provides an essential service and its operations are continuing as normal, spokesman Khulu Phasiwe said by phone.

The country’s three other biggest labor groups -- Cosatu, the Federation of Unions of South Africa, and the National Council of Trade Unions -- didn’t back the strike.

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