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Garbage piles up in strike-torn Johannesburg

Bags of garbage have been piling up on the corners of the main streets in the center of South Africa's richest city, Johannesburg, this week as a result of a strike by thousands of black municipal workers.

Apart from men in the city's cleansing department, thousands of workers in other departments -- at power stations, the city zoo, the health department, the city treasurer's department to the main fruit and vegetable market and the public libraries, have stopped work.

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Altogether 10,000 workers, who represent about two-thirds of Johannesburg's black municipal work force, were on strike by July 30. The strike started at the end of last week with a stoppage by fewer than 2,000.

White municipal workers, private contractors, and even some schoolchildren have been drafted to keep services going.

But the workers' attitudes seemed to be hardening all week as the result of the uncompromising line adopted by the Johannesburg management committee, which runs the city's day-to-day affairs. This committee is dominated by supporters of the now-defunct "centrist" United Party and the ruling South African white National Party.

The management committee had threatened that thousands will lose their jobs if they do not return to work today, but there are warnings that there is little chance of resolving the dispute unless the management committee adopts a more flexible and conciliatory approach. There are also fears that support might grow for the municipal workers among the more than 1 million blacks who live in nearby Soweto.

There are two main reasons for the strike. The first is a demand that the pay of municipal laborers in all departments (who are all black) should be increased from approximately $43 a week to $75.40.

The workers point out that the present pay is well below the figure set by economists as the minimum "poverty pay" level of $234 a month.

The second reason, which has been growing in importance and causing increasing bitterness among the workers is that the workers want the management committee to recognize and negotiate with their trade union, the black municipality workers' union.

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Instead of talking to the union, the management committee has called in armed riot police with dogs to keep order and tried to reach a settlement through elderly tribal leaders, who are rejected by most of the workers.

The strike has once again drawn attention to the woefully poor conditions in which thousands of black Johannesburg workers live in municipal hostels. City councillor Janet Levine said: "We have the situation where 12 people sleep in a cubicle which has no door . . . They sleep on bunk beds and must cook where they sleep . . . Food is kept in cardboard boxes beside their beds.

"They live dismal and totally unmotivated lives."

She blamed "medieval living conditions, poor wages and a paternalistic system of labour representation" for the strike.

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