With 16 bus companies now non-operational, thousands of commuters across the country are stranded as drivers, unions and their employers reached a deadlock in negotiations.
Two sticking points led to a breakdown in talks on Wednesday afternoon, according to acting spokesperson for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Phakamile Hlubi.
Hlubi said when a bus takes a long-distance trip there are two drivers on board. But bus companies are refusing to pay the second driver, who is not at the wheel. The second problem was about working hours: many drivers work up to 16 hour shifts at a time, Hlubi said.
Employers mostly offer overtime to their workers after 16 hours, and Numsa is not happy about it. The union says it is dangerous for drivers to work such long days without rest.
But this is not the only issue that was left on the table on Wednesday.
While the issues do not apply to all 16 services affected, Numsa says many of the problems affect drivers across the board, hence the nationwide strike. Major bus companies that have closed as a result of the strike include Greyhound, Putco, Golden Arrow and Gautrain.
Many drivers are earning about R5,000, and from the beginning the unions, Numsa and the South African Transport Workers Union (Satawu) have demanded a double digit increase of at least 12%. The employers have refused to budge to more than 7.5 percent.
Satawu was not immediately available for comment on Thursday, but was quoted earlier this week saying money was not the only issue at stake.
"Labour was clear from the beginning that these talks were aimed at transforming the industry for the better. But employers have stubbornly refused to relent on demands that are already stipulated in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act [BCEA], citing the current main collective agreement as justification.
"For instance, the agreement classifies night work as any work done between 8pm and 3am while the BCEA specifies work done between 6pm to 6am. Spread over – where a driver reports for work for a three-hour morning shift, breaks for eight hours and then works a further five hours, is another factor that parties have failed to agree on," Satawu said in a statement on Tuesday.
Numsa, which is the second biggest union in the sector, says it got involved in the negotiations in January.
At the time, the first round of negotiations stalled when the employers would only agree to a 4 percent increase.
Back then, Numsa said it would only embark on a strike if all other avenues had been exhausted. On Wednesday, that tipping point arrived when the unions and employers were called to the negotiating table once more, only to butt heads over working hours and the payment of the second drivers.
Stranded at Easter
Meanwhile, thousands of commuters relying on buses to go home for the weekend, specifically across the border to neighbouring SADC countries for Easter, have been stranded.
The strike extends around the country, Numsa's secretary in KwaZulu-Natal told The Times on Wednesday: "There is no bus that is moving out of Durban Station bus terminal. It is unfortunate we're embarking on a strike on the eve of a busy long weekend."
The South African Bus Employers' Association (SABEA) and the Commuter Bus Employers Organisation (COBEO) told the SABC that they were disappointed that the drivers had decided to strike.
Spokesperson of SABEA and COBEO, Meko Magida, said, "It's a pity that trade unions have decided to serve us with a notice of intention to go on strike. We've also asked the General Secretary of the Bargaining Council to facilitate a get together of the parties so that we can try and sort out all the differences, with the intention of coming up with a collective agreement that will be applicable to our sector."