The unbundling of Eskom might hit a new snag as trade unions are considering their options due to a lack of consultation.
When delivering his emergency budget speech on Wednesday Finance Minister Tito Mboweni however said progress is too slow, with a veiled threat that this could put the R230 billion government assistance it was provisionally allocated over 10 years in jeopardy.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan published a roadmap to a transformed energy supply industry in October last year. The document set out the steps to legally separate Eskom’s generation, transmission and distribution functions into three different companies within the Eskom group. The transmission company will also be the home of an independent market operator that will buy electricity from different suppliers in a competitive market.
According to the roadmap the legal separation had to be completed by the end of next year, but Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter recently told a parliamentary committee that it will only be achieved in 2023.
De Ruyter prefers the term “divisionalisation” and has stated that much progress has been made with the functional separation of the three divisions, with each one now having a CEO and board appointed from Eskom staff.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) will on Friday decide what steps it will take against Eskom for proceeding with the restructuring of Eskom into the three divisions without properly consulting staff.
In the meantime, trade union Solidarity has given Eskom until Friday to stop the redeployment of staff currently working in its Group Technology division, failing which it will apply for a court order to stop the process. It also cites a lack of consultation, according to sector coordinator Tommy Wedderspoon.
This redeployment, referred to as “relinking”, is one of the early processes towards unbundling and entails the transfer of staff from Eskom’s head office Megawatt Park in Sandton to the generation, transmission and distribution divisions.
That mostly means that staff must relocate to power stations located hundreds of kilometers away.
National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola confirmed that the union is also vehemently opposed to the unbundling and has lodged a dispute against the relinking with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), as has Solidarity.
The three unions have also lodged a joint grievance internally with Eskom regarding the ‘relinking’ of about 50 of their members, said Thinus Jacobs from Solidarity.
Jacobs said the relinking impacts about 1 400 Eskom staff, not all negatively.
Moves that don’t make sense
Some of the moves however don’t make sense, he says. In one case, a senior geologist has been transferred from Megawatt Park to a position as production engineer at a power station 200km away. In another, someone who has worked at Eskom as a design engineer for 12 years has been transferred to a power station as production engineer.
Meanwhile, a metallurgical engineer has been redeployed as a mechanical engineer.
Some members have been transferred from Sandton to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station near Cape Town, all without formal consultation.
Jacobs says the employer was initially accommodating and willing to allow affected employees to delay their moves until their children had finished the school year, but now they are being threatened that they will be charged with absconding and pay will be withheld, unless they report to their new stations.
The law is clear
According to labour expert Chris Jacobs, a director at OIM International, the Labour Relations Act is clear. An employer is obliged to consult even when it merely contemplates restructuring, whether it entails retrenchments or not.
He says employers are sometimes arrogant and take chances, but if they fail to follow the prescribed procedures the whole process could be derailed.
He says at Eskom the unions should insist on proper consultations about the end state of the unbundling, because it will change the identity of the employer. “That is the person who pays your salary, who you report to, and whose disciplinary process you can be subjected to,” he says.
Failing to address the end state could result in a situation where the employer changes the work environment gradually until a point of no return has been reached, without the workers ever having had their say.
Eskom would not comment out of respect for the CCMA process.