JOHANNESBURG // Construction workers have agreed to end a week-long strike that threatened to derail the completion of already tightly-scheduled projects for the World Cup, union officials and employers said yesterday. Workers agreed on a pay increase of 12 per cent, below the earlier demand of 13 per cent, and work at sites across South Africa is to resume today.
"The strike is over," said Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers. "We got a good offer." About 70,000 workers began striking last Wednesday, stopping work on stadiums, airports, motorways and Johannesburg's new high-speed rail link - projects that are scheduled to be finished by December. The World Cup is to be held in the summer of next year. Negotiations were concluded in the early hours of yesterday morning and an agreement was to be signed later in the day.
Danny Jordaan, the head of the World Cup organising committee, welcomed the end of the dispute. "Let the construction restart in earnest," he said in a statement. Workers earn a minimum wage of about US$300 (Dh1,000) a month but some casual labourers can take home less than $100. Unions have also cited increases in fuel and food costs that are making it harder for workers to make ends meet. Their protests drew wide attention. On Tuesday, at Soccer City, a World Cup finals venue near Soweto, hundreds of protesting workers marched around the stadium, brandishing sharpened sticks and singing a Xhosa-language lament about how hard they worked and how little they were paid.
South Africa, a regional economic powerhouse, has an unemployment rate of about 25 per cent and has also entered a recession for the first time in nearly two decades. The economy has shrunk by 6.4 per cent, putting pressure on companies, and there have already been many lay-offs. The new World Cup wage agreement includes concessions by employers on a number of benefits such as annual leave, bonuses and severance procedures.
Mike Wylie, a spokesman for the South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, an employers' group, said management sympathised with workers' concerns. Wylie, who is also chairman of the WBHO construction company, who had about 10,000 workers go on strike, said the new deal will go a "long way to improving pay packages". But there was only so far companies can go in boosting wages and benefits, he said. "It is no good if we are sympathetic and not being sustainable," Wylie said. "If we are not sustainable, a lot of people would lose their jobs."
Wylie said he was confident that builders would make up for a week's worth of lost time. It is important for South Africa to host a successful World Cup and "silence those cynics", he said. A world-class event would "bring South Africa a lot of credibility and bring investment which would create more jobs in the future". * AP