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CSIR staff ‘scared and worried’ as job cuts loom

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is the latest research casualty of South Africa’s fiscal austerity and economic straits.

The CSIR, Africa’s largest science council, is retrenching staff in a move that its executive and board say is driven by tight finances and sustainability concerns.  

In December the CSIR served 271 employees with retrenchment notices—around 10 per cent of the staff the council employed in 2016-17, according to that year’s annual report.

The reason, CSIR told Research Africa this week, is financial. “For some time now […] operating units and portfolios have been required to implement austerity measures so as to curb expenditure where possible,” it said in a written statement.  

“Despite these interventions we have not achieved sufficient relief to avoid the proposed restructuring of the affected operating units and portfolios,” it added.  

The CSIR says retrenchment notices target a subset of its activities, including coastal engineering and environmental analysis (see full list below the story).  

“We need to position the CSIR to develop technologies and capabilities, which lead to financial stability,” CEO Thulani Dlamini told Research Africa.

“There are capabilities that are no longer relevant or where we do not have a comparative advantage, and we cannot continue investing in something that the market does not require,” he said.

But several current and former CSIR staff say the retrenchment process has been handled poorly, and question its fairness and the leadership of the council.  

The CSIR derives most of its income from the local public sector. But South Africa’s economy is spluttering, and all public institutions and budgets are under pressure.  

The CSIR group executive for legal and compliance, Esmé  Kennedy, who is coordinating the retrenchment process, says that not all employees who received letters will be retrenched.

“A moratorium has been placed on all vacancies as part of the consultation process,” she said, and the council will first try to move people into alternative positions: “Only at the end of that consultation process will we be able to say who is retrenched.”

So far, 45 of the 271 employees have taken “voluntary separation” packages. The remainder are in consultation with the organisation over the future of their jobs.  

Toxic environment

Thokozani Majozi, the CSIR board chairman, said the retrenchment proposal had been on the table since April last year, and that the executive had asked units to submit feasibility studies and suggestions of where they could tighten their belts.

But several staff who have received letters deny that the CSIR has consulted them. Employees received letters in the second week of December, with a “voluntary separation” notice deadline of 2 January 2019. Staff have complained that this was done just before Christmas and that there has been a lack of consultation.

One source within the organisation says that they are “scared and worried” about their job, while another said: “The restructuring is necessary but it’s not being done the right way. Even people whose jobs are secure are unhappy. It’s this toxic environment, and the executive seems unapproachable.”

Kennedy acknowledges the poor timing but says that the notices had to be sent out because of an agreement with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, which is facilitating the process.  

The delay in consultation was due to the closure of the CCMA for the festive season, Kennedy says: “We are not allowed to consult in the absence of a facilitator, so we’re reliant on the CCMA to make someone available.

“And there are financial considerations. At the end [of the day], this exercise is about relevance and financial sustainability.”

However, it appears that this is a cycle that research organisations go through: optimising for industrial competitiveness, before swinging back toward a research focus.

A former CSIR researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity, says it is a common cycle for the CSIR: “You know how it is–science, then industry, then science–they cycle between them with no middle ground, as if one precludes the other.”

The source predicts that “the CSIR will be an awful place to work at for the next seven years and then will start to return as they realise they only have consultants left with no science backbone.”

Areas targeted for retrenchments

● built environment (water research competence and coastal engineering and ports infrastructure);  

● the natural resources environment (global change and ecosystems research group);

● implementation unit (enterprise creation and development, and environmental analysis laboratories);  

● defence, peace, safety and security (“overall optimisation of unit support, research groups and competency areas”);  

● material science and manufacturing (discontinue microsystems research and development, and textile research, move research in biocomposites and bioplastics from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria);  

● research, development and innovation support function.

Additional reporting by Linda Nordling