DURBAN – Marine pilots, tug masters and marine engineering officers at South Africa's ports are preparing to strike from 6am on Thursday.
The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) said via a statement on Tuesday that the strike would "see a total shutdown of the country’s ports".
The union, which has obtained a strike certificate, said it had called the industrial action to protest against what it called salary discrepancy between black and white mariners at Transnet Port Authority (TNPA).
"White mariners [draw] higher salaries than their black counterparts even when they have less experience," said Satawu spokesperson, Zanele Sabela.
Those on strike would include the men and women responsible for bringing ships safely into and out of port, including at Durban, Richards Bay, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Saldanha Bay, Mossel Bay and East London.
"The mariners skills' set is such that its withdrawal will result in a total shutdown at all ports," said Sabela.
But Transnet officials on Tuesday said it had plans in place to minimise disruptions if the strike went ahead. They were responding to a question raised from the floor at a Port Consultative Committee roadshow meeting in Durban.
Officials were also quizzed on a number of harbour vessels that were said to be out of action.
Speaking outside the meeting, Tshwaelo Matlhape, TNPA senior operations' manager for Durban, said its tugs were operating as normal at present, with no disruption to services.
The pilot boats were out of action for three hours on Monday when one broke down briefly while the other was still in dry-dock for a service.
Matlhape said four tug boats were working on Tuesday, while a fifth could not be operated because three tug crew were absent.
He said it was unclear if there was any link between the absenteeism and the threatened strike, but said it had caused no delays to operations in the country's most important port.
In a statement later on Tuesday, TNPA said the threatened strike was the result of an "unresolved dispute of mutual interest that exists between TNPA mariners who are members of SATAWU and TNPA".
“We have assessed the impact of the strike action and have activated contingency measures though our Business Continuity Plans. We will continuously update our customers and directly engage with them on shipping matters to ensure minimum disruption to port operations,” said Nozipho Mdawe, TNPA acting chief executive.
Another senior Transnet official, who asked not to named, said the port authority was still trying to reach an agreement with the union.
A business continuity plan was in place and although "you never know", Transnet expected the impact of the strike to be minimal, said the official. "We contacted our service providers to be on standby to assist if needed."
Satawu said the port authority had asked the union to put off the industrial action so they could talk. "The parties held two robust meetings but could not reach a satisfactory agreement despite the company admitting to pay discrepancies across all divisions," Sabela said.
She said Satawu then requested a neutral party be commissioned to investigate and make recommendations, "but management declined the request". "Our members are convinced the employer does not care about them considering 25 years into democracy, the port authority is still implementing apartheid-style pay scales," Sabela said.
She warned the strike would be elevated on 3 June, with all Satawu members at the port authority downing tools if management "failed to come to the table meaningfully".
About 160 mariners and engineers were expected to strike on Thursday, said Sabela.
On average the mariners move three ships per two-hour interval. The vessels ferry goods worth millions of rand, bringing the potential loss due to the strike action to billions of rand.
The Ports Regulator of South Africa's chief executive, Mahesh Fakir, told the roadshow that the regulator would be against passing the cost of any lost business arising from the strike to port users in the form of raised tariffs.
The roadshow was held to update port users and seek their views on development and capital spending plans and port performance and efficiencies.