EFF organises and represents workers
Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi, Head of EFF Labour Desk, interviewed by Mazibuko Jara
Amandla 76 | June 2021
Mazibuko Jara: When it comes to organising workers, what is the strategic thinking? What do you want to achieve?
Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi: We don’t have a strategy really, what we have done is to consciously structure what was before very chaotic work when people could walk to any EFF offices, and we didn’t have processes. But also, this led to people abusing EFF’s name without the organisation being aware. Normally, we wait for a particular worker or a group of workers in a specific institution to say, “please come and help us here, we have a case of unfair dismissal or unfair treatment, or there is racism”.
We are not a labour union, and employers use that quite often to prevent us. So the first thing that we do, we call them, “My name is Hlengiwe Mkaliphi; I am head of EFF Labour Desk; we have received a complaint in regards to unfair treatment of workers in your organisation. Can we meet and sit down?”
That’s all. Some just reply through lawyers, “If you are not going to stop, we will take you to court, blah, blah”. We will be patient with them. We reply again, “yes, we are not a labour union, we understand that. But we have an interest because this case has been reported to us.” If they still insist they don’t want us to meet, we organise to go and picket outside their premises.
Other employers get scared. They call us, “No, let us meet, let us resolve it. What is it that you want to achieve?” And we reply, “No we don’t want to achieve anything. We want you to address what is raised here. In the first letter, we have given to you exactly what the workers are raising. So if we can meet and resolve those cases one by one”.
So that’s what we normally do. If an organisation doesn’t want to resolve workers’ concerns, we also advise our workers to go to CCMA. There is a new amendment in the BCEA, section 73(a). If a worker is owed money, the CCMA can deal with it instead of the Labour Court. And you know it would be very expensive for just an ordinary person to go to a labour court.
We have established a very good relationship with the CCMA, although we are not allowed to represent workers there. What we normally do is we prepare the workers. We call them in the office, and we tell them, “We are not going to be with you there, but we will be there inside observing. So these are the points.” So now there’s an improvement because before workers, especially the vulnerable workers, would keep quiet there. And those commissioners, because they also want to finish their cases in front of them, will not help workers.
MJ: You mention preparing your labour desk members, activists. I guess you take them through labour law training?
HM: Yes, normally we ask the CCMA, “Come guys, come and give us the training”. I have 10 activists here who have matric, others who don’t have matric. But when we recruit, we also emphasise that: please can we have activists who have clarity in terms of the labour laws.
But I also conduct classes myself as well. I listen to them, “What are the challenges? How did you resolve them?”. They say, “No, no, no, we still have a problem, I don’t know this LRA.” And I say, “No, you must go with your conscious. Don’t just concentrate on labour laws. Be an activist. Those things you’ll get inside when you fight. And if you get stuck, you must call a person with labour law skills”.
So that’s how we tackle our cases. Also, in our HQ we have lawyers on standby who advise daily.
MJ: I guess you also have comrades on the ground who are EFF members but have trade union experience.
HM: You know, since we started the labour desk, there’s a mushrooming of unions. That’s why I’m also very, very strict in terms of the coordination of the labour desk. We are saying this thing must be decentralised so that if there is a case at Mnquma Local Municipality in one village, you must not wait until you go to East London. So when you coordinate your Labour Desk in the Eastern Cape, you must go down as far as your sub-region.
What they normally do these comrades, if they see there is no proper monitoring, they go to a particular company. They see an opportunity, and they go to register a union. Then they go back to those workers to say, “Now there is an EFF union that will help you”. Workers will be very interested, “Yeah, I am resigning from my old union. EFF has a union”. Later on, when they get stuck because they don’t know even the labour laws, they come back and say, “Labour desk, please help us”.
We are not a union as a labour desk, and at some point when we want to go inside to talk to employers, they normally tell us no, we’ve got nothing to do with political parties.
We ask workers who have invited us into a company, “Do you have a union?” “Yes, we have a union.” “How is your relationship with your union? Are you still happy with your union?”. “No, we are still happy”. “Ok, let’s work with them, just for us to gain entrance.” Once we go inside with the union, then we’ll be fighting that company together with the union.
We have won so many cases. I think when we started the labour desk in September, we had a system whereby we said people must call in or send WhatsApp messages. On one single day, it was 10,000 messages. The next day we received 18,000 messages. In the third day, messaging were increasing and the system crashed. And then the President called me on the third day to say, “what is the strategy? How are you going to do this?”. And I said, “What I’m going to do is to activate provincial labour desks.”
So we called the deputy chairpersons of the EFF in the provinces. We said, “You are going to be the head of the labour desk in your provinces. Go and set up your structure in the regions”.
At a national level, we have a coordinator and six volunteers. We put our WhatsApp numbers on Twitter and Facebook. When they call us, we disseminate their info to provinces, and we encourage them to go to offices of the EFF across the country.
So far, according to our records, what we have received, the number is 37 076, and out of that 37,000, we have resolved 22,866.
MJ: And how are the older unions responding, not the new ones?
HM: Ah, the unions are very much against it. Let me give one example. I called the CEO of Sun International after I got the news that he has retrenched 2,400 black workers in Sun City. And then I called him, “Let us meet chief. Let me understand why only black people have been retrenched”.
He agreed to the meeting, and then toward the meeting date, he said, no, Saccawu is telling him not to accept me to sit down with him. I said, “No, I’m not accountable to Saccawu. I’m coming to you, you agreed.” Then he asks, “Are you coming as MP or as EFF Labour Desk, because I have nothing to do with a political party?” And I say, “Do you want me to come naked? I must not come with my EFF thingies. I’ll come naked, but I’m coming”.
When we sat down, and we asked him, “Why are you telling us about Saccawu?” In terms of the law, he said those workers have embarked on the processes of section 189 of the LRA and the union was there and everything was done according to the books. So the Head Office of the union also said, no, we must not meet with you.
It means that Saccawu is doing something very wrong.
But before we spoke about the 2,400 retrenched black workers, some workers had just staged a protest. And then management was so angry that they issued letters of suspension.
And then we said to them, “No, what is the problem?” They told us there are two unions, and they are fighting – Saccawu and the other union in Sun City. They are competing. So I said let us be the voice of reason as EFF. We are going to talk to both unions. But you must withdraw those suspension letters – there were 27 workers. We spoke to those people. We said, “Hey chief, comrades stop this thing of being misled by the union. You know, recently 2,400 people in the same institution have been retrenched; you will follow suit. These people are very cruel”.
And they managed to reverse everything, and the union got undermined. They were very angry. They even sent me an SMS saying that “Wena, you are declaring war when you see me on the street”. I said, “There’s no need, let’s just sit down. This war needs all of us”.
I even went to meet Vavi when we started EFF Labour Desk. I told him that I came to him because I know he’s a seasoned leader and has experience. Let us share some ideas. And he also welcomed us, but he was not happy. He wanted to know what we wanted to achieve, asking if we were planning to form a union.
As an experienced who has been there, we asked him, “Why are the unions failing?” He shared some experiences and some of his views with us, but he wanted to know, “OK but this labour desk, where does this thing go?” We told him, “No, we are just occupying the space fighting for workers for now, and it will be up to the Central Command Team to decide if there is a union that is going to be formed. But we don’t have a long-term goal to form a union. I don’t want to lie.”
MJ: The traditional form of unions is the traditional form of workplace organising. But for about 10 years now it has been clear that form is not adequate; it seems to be structurally limited.
HM: You’re quite right Jara, you’re quite right. My opinion is that when we are fighting for workers, we also need to pronounce on the laziness of unions. There are so many examples I can give to you. Here in Parliament, there is Nehawu. But there is an issue of temporary workers who have been on fixed-term contracts for 20 years.
So at least they have also come to the fore and reactivated. We work like that without recognising them because, at some point, we don’t have to. It’s their job. They even charge these people. The fact of the matter was they also thought that we were going to form a union, and you know, people want something that is tangible. So if EFF forms a union, I’m sure people will be very interested because they see the work of the EFF labour desk. But we are not there yet.
MJ: Where do you see this work going over the next year at least, particularly when it comes to what happens after the case is resolved. How do the workers remain organised?
HM: After we enter their companies, we convert them to a labour forum of some sort. Not in terms of the Act, but our labour forum, to organise them. We say, “Okay, there are 30 of you; let’s elect 10 people. There must be a coordinator and a convenor amongst yourselves. You must remain coordinated. If there is an issue, you must sit down as workers, and you must talk about those issues. If you need to go and approach your employer, you must go and approach your employer. If you get stuck, you must call us. The office is there”. But we encourage them to take up their issues. They must not be cry babies. If workers remain unorganised, they are always going to cause havoc in the country.