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Skills shortage blamed for Medupi protests

Murray & Roberts
underground training
at Kroondal platinum
Johannesburg, South Africa — ESI-AFRICA.COM — 13 May 2011 – The shortage of specialised skills among construction workers and the lack of continuity of large projects have been blamed for causing the protests over foreign workers at the Medupi power station construction site this week.

Protests by about 500 workers at Medupi on Monday resulted in some vehicles being damaged and Eskom restricting access to the site, causing a halt to construction.

Senior economist at the SA Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors Henk Langenhoven is quoted by Business Report as saying that protests about foreign workers have happened on other projects, such as the gas pipeline from Maputo. He said the problem with the local supply of skilled workers in certain areas had been exacerbated by the huge demand for these skills for projects that had not been done in the country for a long time.

“We have not built a power station for 20 years. There is a mismatch between the supply and demand for skills,” he added.

Langenhoven said that there were only two solutions to the shortage of skills. “If you want the project finished, you import the skills or you replenish the skills pipeline, but that cannot be done in the short term.” He pointed out that it was not possible to keep staff with specialised skills if there was not any continuity of work for these skills.

Murray & Roberts (M&R) spokesman Ed Jardim, said his company had various international and local specialist artisans working on the Medupi site, and the Taiwanese artisans were specialist welders.

Jardim said M&R had embarked on a programme to allow local artisans to go through a training process to learn this specialist skill but only a few had passed and the firm had been forced to supplement them with specialist foreign skills.

Alex Mashilo, a National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) spokesman, stressed that the union was not opposed to the employment of foreign workers to the extent that the country needed these scarce specialised skills.

Mashilo said the dispute at Medupi had been caused by a number of issues, including the super-exploitation of migrant workers by contractors.

Jardim said M&R had more than 1,000 local workers being taken through artisan training.
“There is definite skills transfer taking place, but it takes many years to obtain the skill and it cannot be developed overnight. The complement of foreign artisans will be reduced over time.”

Meanwhile Eskom spokeswoman Hilary Joffe said access to the construction sites at Medupi and Kusile was still restricted.

Joffe said Eskom was hoping construction could resume next week. But she stressed that Eskom wanted both sites to be safe for workers and contractors before deciding to reopen them and that there would not be any repetition of the protests once they were reopened.