Staff at BDFM have approached the operations manager handling their union chapter at United Associations of South Africa (Uasa) to handle a meeting between Times Media Group management and themselves at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
The move comes in the wake of an announcement that Business Day will be launching a new round of staff cuts in effort to slash its budget. The company initiated a programme of voluntary severance packages late last year, but now needs to cut millions from its budget.
“We have met Uasa members and are now waiting for the CCMA to come back to us with a date for a meeting with management to discuss the restructuring of BDFM in terms of section 189,” says Uasa’s Chris Smith, confirming that the union had been asked to intervene in the proposed retrenchments. BDFM has between 98 and 114 members, Smith says.
Section 189 required parties, “in the form of a joint problem-solving exercise, to strive for consensus if that is possible”. Its aim is to help parties “reach consensus on, amongst other things, appropriate measures to avoid dismissals”. It says in order for this to be effective, the consultation process must start “as soon as the employer contemplates a reduction of the workforce, through retrenchments or redundancies, so that possible alternatives can be explored. The employer should in all good faith keep an open mind throughout and seriously consider proposals put forward”.
Smith says the hope is that the process will help save some jobs. Editor of Business Day, Peter Bruce, said the company was happy to proceed with the section 189 consultations.
Bruce said that while Uasa members are “entitled and welcome to be represented by their union, it was management that invited non-members also to be represented by Uasa or any other union they choose, and it was management that invited the CCMA to observe our process. It is not a CCMA process, it is ours”.
Asked how many jobs would be lost, Bruce said it was “difficult to estimate” but that BDFM had to cut “between R14m to R16m from our budget”.
But he recently told Bloomberg BDFM would employ “closer to 100 than 150” employees after the cuts, Bruce said in a mobile phone interview today. The unit has about 150 staff now, he said. “We’re near to the bottom of the cycle.”
Asked whether retrenchments were the only way to make these savings, Bruce said, “They are cuts, not savings. Cuts need to be permanent, savings often aren’t.”
In its latest annual report, the Times Media Group, which owns BDFM, said, “Total staff cost savings that will be realised from the restructure are expected to be approximately R25 million during the 2014 financial year”. Bruce said that besides editorial cuts, “we have made big cuts in changing BD’s printing arrangements and using new paper stock and a new printer for the Financial Mail. There are also lots of other cuts being made daily in our group operations in terms of the costs related to selling advertising, distribution and head office”.
TMG in its report said it had taken an “aggressive approach to reduce the cost of sales. This means reducing overheads, securing more cost-effective printing partners, shrinking the management layer, trimming our pre-print staff, while still maintaining a balance that ensures optimal performance”.
There is a perception among staff that there is an expensive management tier in place at BDFM that is being kept in place at the expense of newsroom and production staff. “Show me a newsroom that doesn’t thinks its editors vain, lazy and useless. The fact is the editorial management tier is not exempt from the cuts despite the fact that it is, in my view, extremely hard-working and productive. In terms of non-editorial management, numbers have been reduced from 16 to just one,” Bruce said..
Times Media Group has also embarked on a strategy to incorporate Business Day and the Financial Mail to, in the words of the annual report, eliminate cost duplication and maximise profits.
“Successful, profitable newspapers rely on economies of scale, and sharing costs across many publications. It is our view that one cannot run a single newspaper on its own, with its own infrastructure and cost base. BDFM is evidence of this trend, and by owning 100%, it allows TMG to incorporate the two publications onto our media platform, eliminating cost-duplication and maximising profit,” the report said.
Bruce said the amalgamation and the restructuring probably need to be seen as the same thing. “BDFM as a separate legal entity will soon, I hope, cease to exist. We need to integrate fully into TMG and the cuts we are making now will help us to do that.”
While Business Day has to slash jobs, the Sunday Times is hiring staff. Part of the CCMA consultation hopes to look at ways of incorporating staff from BDFM into positions at the weekly, should they be suitable for the available positions.