Tuesday, 15 June 2010

World Cup Steward Strikes - Where Next?

Having sat through - and tried to enjoy, despite the lack of quality on show - the World Cup match between Italy and Paraguay on Monday night, I logged onto Twitter. I had hoped this might provide some respite from the relentlessly dreary match, in which one group of long-haired, swarthy types kicked lumps out of the other.

Instead I was shocked to read this tweet from Nigerian sportswriter Colin Udoh:
BIG TROUBLE at Durban Stadium!! Something just exploded. outside. Media being forced to stay inside the Media Centre
There was more to come - according to journalist Kris Fernandes inside the Moses Mabhida Stadium where the match had taken place,
a pungent scent of smoke is wafting in the media centre from the warning shots (Not actual bullets from what we're told) that were fired off
As it turned out, the commotion was caused by an attempt by the South African Police Services (SAPS) to break up a demonstration of match stewards outside the stadium. The stewards were angry at not being paid the wages they had anticipated, and have since complained about their working hours and conditions to numerous media sources.

Since Monday evening a further four of South Africa's World Cup stadiums have seen their stewards go on sympathy strikes, in solidarity with their co-workers in Durban. If newspaper reports on the issue are to be believed, the organisation contracting the stewards, Stallion Security, appear to have misled and/or mistreated their workers, and the strike appears to my eye (albeit here in the UK) justifiable. 10-12 hours work paid at something like £1.50 per hour, in an economy where GDP per capita is around £7000 per annum, with only partial regard for worker wellbeing, does not a happy workforce make.

In the absence of the striking stewards, the World Cup Organising Committee have charged SAPS with providing security services on matchdays in the five locations concerned.

It's worth stating the ostensibly banal point that, having feared the worst, we can all be relieved that this was not a terrorist attack. But - and I hate to sound alarmist - some of the implications of the steward strikes for this World Cup could be highly damaging to the successful organisation of the tournament.

First and foremost, few people seem to have noted the grim irony of handing over responsibility for crowd control inside stadiums to SAPS - an organisation that chose to deal with a potentially volatile crowd of striking workers at the Moses Mabhida Stadium by charging them with stun grenades and rubber bullets. One wonders if SAPS are briefed to deal with misbehaving football fans in a similar way - and what, if they do, might be the consequences.

Secondly, and arguably of even more concern, is the fillip that the stewards' strike might provide to organised labour across the rest of the South African economy. On the eve of the World Cup a number of South Africa's economic sectors are threatened with industrial action. Eskom, the state-owned utilities company, could be one of those hit by strikes. Some 1.3 million public sector workers had also threatened to take industrial action prior to the tournament, a threat that has only been postponed by the South African government's agreement to negotiate over wage increases.

South Africa's workforce may well have legitimate grievances; they equally may be using the World Cup, and the threat of chaos that a strike would cause during the tournament, as a gun to hold to their employers' heads. If settlements cannot be found to the pay disputes, the World Cup may be derailed; if employers give in to potentially costly demands, the South African economy could be harmed long-term.

Whatever the case, this is certainly not the last we will hear of the issue. Prior to the tournament so many stories circulated about the potential logistical problems of holding the World Cup in South Africa that there has been a kind of media backlash, as major broadcasters and newspapers have largely ignored or underplayed the trouble over striking stewards. We may all be in for a nasty shock - whether that be a major security incident involving football fans, or largescale industrial action.

I hope I'm wrong though.


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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James