Over 70,000 workers labouring on South Africa’s World Cup stadiums embarked on a strike Wednesday to press for higher wages, sparking fears of building delays a year before the sporting event.
The strike threatens the completion deadlines at five venues for the 2010 FIFA World Cup stadiums and other major projects associated with the event.
“The government must help us, otherwise we are going to delay 2010. We will strike until 2011,” said National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman Lesiba Seshoka.
NUM is demanding a 13 percent wage increase as well as benefits such as paid maternity leave and better safety regulations.
The South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (SAFCEC) was offering a 10 percent increase, and spokesman Joe Campanella said the union demands totalled a wage increase of 65 percent in rand terms, not 13 percent.
“The protest will end at the time when SAFCEC agrees to the 13 percent,” Seshoka said.
Local organising committee chief executive Danny Jordaan said he hoped the strike will be over soon as construction workers were important in ensuring that South Africa was on track to meet deadlines.
“It has always been the position of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee South Africa that we respect the right of construction workers on the 2010 FIFA World Cup stadiums to strike if they feel they have legitimate grievances,” Jordaan said.
“We believe that the strike will be resolved as soon as possible and remain confident that the stadiums will be completed on schedule.”
The union said the strike was a success on its first day.
“The NUM is pleased to report that over 95 percent of the sites were hit by the strike with a 100 percent attendance in the first day of a rolling national strike action,” said unions negotiator Bhekani Ngcobo.
He warned that the union’s demands could go up starting next week if they are not met by then.
“If they do not offer us 13 percent, we may demand 15 percent next week and 20 percent the following week. So, this matter is urgent,” said Ngcobo.
Paul Malatjie, 28, a construction worker at the Soccer City Stadium where strikers danced and chanted revolutionary songs, said the employees deserved better pay for their work.
“Look at the wonderful work they have done, but they need to be paid for it. The people that are benefiting are the wealthy, we are wondering where is their money,” he said.
“At the end of the day we are not even going to able to watch one single game.”
The Congress of South African Trade Unions released a statement Tuesday pledging its “total support” to the construction workers.
“Construction workers regularly put their lives on the line doing what is one of the most dangerous jobs. They require high levels of skill and have contributed massively to the development of the country, yet receive next to nothing in return,” it stated.
“COSATU, and the construction workers, are as passionate about the 2010 World Cup as anyone, and will do everything possible to ensure its success. But we will not tolerate the stadiums being built by workers who are underpaid or working in dangerous and unhealthy conditions,” it said.
Workers at the Soccer City Stadium in the Soweto township outside Johannesburg also complained of the high cost of transport to the stadium and that companies made them use their own tools rather than providing them.
About 2,000 workers stopped work at midday at Soccer City Stadium while over 1,000 walked out of the construction site of Cape Town’s Green Point stadium.
Shane Choshane, another NUM spokesman, said the average worker earned about 2,500 rand (307 US dollars) a month. He said the strike would continue Thursday.
Work at the Gautrain site, a rail project that will enable passengers to travel between the government’s headquarters in Pretoria and the country’s largest city Johannesburg in just 42 minutes, also stopped.
Transport was one of the problems experienced during the recent Confederations Cup, and while the project is not due to be completed before 2011 it should partially open to provide some relief during the World Cup.
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