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By Stephen Tau


Strike action looms at VUT ahead of start of new academic year

Disgruntled VUT workers have threatened strike action over shortened contracts for temporary workers.

With the new 2023 academic year at various universities expected to get underway soon, there is a feeling of discontent among staff members at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), south of Johannesburg.

This after the VUT management issued letters to some staff members that their contracts will come to an end within the next two to six months.

The VUT also took a decision last year to permanently shut down its satellite campuses in Secunda, Mpumalanga, Ekurhuleni in Gauteng, and Upington in the Northern Cape.

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While prospective students accompanied by their parents were seen waiting in queues on Monday morning, disgruntled staff members were standing outside the university entrance waiting to be addressed by their union leadership about the way forward, after VUT obtained a court interdict against their industrial action, which was initially scheduled to commence on Monday.

Workers concerns and demands:

Speaking to The Citizen, Joseph Radebe from the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), which represents some VUT employees, said they had already obtained a certificate to strike over a number of concerns.

“Among the issues workers are not happy about include the fact that employees have not had a salary increase since 2021, and it was only last year when management decided to give workers a once-off payment citing financial difficulties at the university.

“All contracts for contract workers have over the years always been renewed on a three-year basis, but that has since changed when contract workers were told by management that they now only have between two and six months left and that their contracts will not be renewed,” said Radebe.

The university currently has about 850 contract workers, according to Radebe.

“Out of these 850, about 160 are going to be affected by this latest decision by management not to renew the contracts.

“This is totally unacceptable because we have been fighting for the past 10 years for the conversion of contract workers into permanent, but nothing has been forthcoming from management,” Radebe said.

Fresh mandate to go on strike

By 11am on Monday, workers were holding a meeting to discuss the way forward and, according to Radebe, the fresh mandate received from their members is that the strike must continue.

“Workers will definitely embark on the strike action before the end of this week. We are just busy finalising all the logistics and making sure that the industrial action is done under the confines of the labour laws,” Radebe said.

Workers facing a bleak future

Meanwhile, three contract workers who spoke to The Citizen on condition of anonymity expressed concerns about the possibility of being without a job in the coming months.

“I decided to take my child to a better school where I’m now forced to pay extra in school fees and I’m worried about how my child will feel when I tell them I will not be able to pay for their school fees in the coming months, as I will be unemployed.

“By the end of last year, we (annual contract workers) were told about being given two months contract, meaning by the end of February – I will not have a job anymore,” the worried employee said.

Another contract worker said she does not know what’s going to happen to her, as she is yet to sign a new contract.

“I started working for VUT in 2017, helping out in different departments of the university until 2019, and I was called back in 2021 to be given another part-time contract. When I spoke to my line manager last year about me being here on a full-time basis, whereas my contract says I’m part time, something needed to be done but nothing was done as I am now facing a challenge of being unemployed in the coming months.”

VUT’s response to employees’ grievances

Responding to the concerns raised by workers, the employer said employees are expected to heed the interdict and not participate in the strike, or accept conditions related to an illegal strike.

Asked what the reasons were that prompted the university to cut short the contracts of the workers in question, VUT spokesperson Tandi Mapukata said the university was exploring all possible means to ensure financial sustainability in the future.

“Every risk has been taken into consideration and appropriate solutions will be implemented,” said Mapukata.

On the closure of satellite campuses, she said: “After a thorough review of the viability of running multiple campuses, the university resolved to become a single campus operation.”

Last year in June, VUT was forced to suspend classes after angry students set alight a building at the institution during a protest over allowances.