Court ruling blow for firefighters

Firefighters marched to the Civic Centre to demand overtime pay and better working conditions in September 2019.

The South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) is appealing a Labour Court ruling that the 24-hour shift agreement and standby allowance for firefighters are valid and that those firefighters who had failed to work the shift in protest had engaged in an illegal strike.

Hundreds of firefighters took to the streets in September last year to demand better pay for working overtime, and about 80% of City firefighters only worked 40-hour work weeks, from 8am to 4.30pm, because they were unhappy with the present overtime-pay structure.

They demanded to earn the same rate for overtime as they did for normal shifts (“Court to decide on firefighters’ dispute,” Southern Mail, October 16, 2019).

But the City refused to budge, and in October it got a Labour Court order to force firefighters to go back to their usual working hours.

This month’s Labour Court ruling found the provisions of a 2007 working hours collective agreement were “valid and binding” and would remain so until a new agreement was reached.

Furthermore, the ruling found that those firefighters who had refused to work the 24-hour shift – as outlined in the collective agreement and their work contracts – had engaged in an unprotected strike. If the appeal fails, firefighters who protested by working fewer hours could be sacked, as the court ruled they had participated in an illegal strike.

Samwu representative Archie Hearn said: “This was discussed with all our members, and they have agreed that should one person get fired then the rest will also leave their posts as a sign of solidarity.

“These firefighters are not only fighting for their own livelihoods but also for those who will become firefighters tomorrow.”

Mr Hearn said the 2007 collective agreement had first been signed in 1993 and signed repeatedly over the years. He claimed it had expired in 2010.

He said he could not understand how the City and the judge could still uphold an agreement that dated back to apartheid.

“We feel that the judge did not look at the content of our complaints and simply ruled that the agreement is still valid,” he said.

Mr Hearn said firefighters’ morale had fallen in recent years and was at an all-time low following the judgment.

“These firefighters do not trust management, and they do not trust the City of Cape Town. There are also fights between Samwu and Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu) members.

Imatu regional manager for the Western Cape, Etienne Bruwer, said Imatu had never participated in the “strike” and their members were advised against such action due to the obvious risks.

The court, he said, had now concluded that the actions had indeed constituted an unprotected strike.

Mr Bruwer said Imatu would now approach the City to negotiate a fair increase.

“If not successful, we will refer the matter to interest arbitration where an independent arbitrator will then have to make a finding,” he said.

Firemen were hesitant to talk, but said they were disappointed with the outcome.

Firefighters based at Ottery Fire station spoke to Southern Mail on condition of anonymity and said they were confident the labour court would rule in their favour.

“It was a huge blow because we thought we were going to win this one. Our employee is not being fair in terms of the correct remuneration for our overtime work. We are working according to an archaic contract that needs to be updated. All we’re asking is to get sufficiently paid for the hours we put our lives at risk and saving people’s lives,” said one of the workers.

Another member of the station said he stands in solidarity with Samwu’s decision to appeal: “We want it to be appealed because we do not want our colleagues to be fired for voicing their opinions and concerns and standing up for their rights. These are issues that needed to be brought up and the only way we felt we were going to be heard was by not working the overtime shifts. We are extremely unhappy and hope our pleas will be heard,” he said.

The City’s executive director for safety and security, Richard Bosman, said the City welcomed the outcome and hoped it would put an end to the uncertainty he said Samwu had tried to create over the past few months.

There had, he said, been efforts in recent years to review the current collective agreement, but Samwu rejected the offer of a 35% standby allowance presented during earlier negotiations.

He said they hoped the union would accept the feedback and return to the negotiations around a new collective agreement.