Firemen go back to work

On Thursday September 26 marched to the Civic Centre to demand overtime pay and better working conditions. Picture: Armand Hough/ANA

The City of Cape Town has forced firefighters to go back to their usual working hours after getting a Labour Court order, according to the firefighters’ union.

In a statement, the City claims it had reached “an interim agreement” with members of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) on Tuesday.

Since the start of the month, about 80% of City firefighters have only worked 40-hour work weeks, from 8am to 4.30pm, because they are unhappy with the present overtime-pay structure. They want to earn the same rate for overtime as they do for normal shifts.

The City’s statement says the matter will be heard in the Labour Court on Friday November 29, and the City’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, said that in the meantime, firefighters would work their regular working hours including 24-hour shifts regardless of which union they belong to.

The City has agreed to lift the suspensions of 26 firefighters, but the employees will still face disciplinary action after the court case.

In the coming weeks, Mr Smith said, the parties would file their heads of argument in preparation for the hearing in the Labour Court.

However, Samwu representative, Archie Hearn, said no agreement had been reached and the matter would be resolved in court.

He said the City had obtained an interdict forcing firefighters to work their regular working hours.

He added that should they lose the matter in court, firefighters would accept it.

During the week-long protest, the City felt the heat as fire stations across Cape Town were short-staffed. This forced the City to turn to trainees to man fire stations, but Mr Hearn said the trainees were not covered for injuries on duty should they work outside their contractual hours of 7am to 4pm. Because of that only a handful of the 40-odd trainees agreed to work the after-hours shifts.

The Echo heard a voice recording of a meeting, purportedly between trainee firefighters and an instructor last week, in which the trainees raise concerns about the consequences for them of being injured while working outside their contractual hours. The instructor can be heard telling the trainees they can’t afford to be scared if they want to be firemen. He then says further training and assessments will be put on hold until they have made up their minds.

In an email to the City’s executive director for safety and security, Richard Bosman, the Echo asked whether trainee firefighters were covered if injured outside of their contractual working hours. We also asked whether all training and assessments had been stopped. He did not answer those questions.

He said only that the protest had affected some fire stations and the City had “contingency plans” to keep fire services running but he did not say what those plans were.

Last month, more than 200 firefighters marched to the Civic Centre to demand pay for working overtime. They indicated that if they did not receive a response from the City, they would be working from 8am to 4.30pm only.

Mr Hearn said the law says an employee must work 160 hours a month, but firefighters work an average of 240 hours a month. During the extra 80 hours, they earn R71.12 per hour as opposed to the R153.96 per hour they earn during a regular shift.

“We feel that is not right as we are working extreme hours, but are not being paid for it.”

However, firefighters belonging to the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (IMATU) did not join the protest and worked their usual hours, which included overtime.

But Imatu regional manager for the Western Cape Etienne Bruwer said Imatu supported the demand for increased allowances.

Last week, Fish Hoek firefighters who spoke to the Echo on condition that we didn’t puplish their names said the difference in working hours between Samwu and Imatu members was causing “a divide” in the office.

The group said they all wanted the same thing.

Most of them were part of the group that marched to the Civic Centre last month. One said the City manager had not been available to accept their memorandum and they had marched to the Department of Labour where the minister’s office had received it.

One said he was nervous about the situation as the City had issued suspension letters to some of the firefighters and he had a family to think about.

He said he would not receive his overtime allowance until an agreement had been reached, and that would hurt him in the pocket

Another said he was worried about the members of the public and what would happen to them should there be an emergency.

According to Mr Hearn, the firefighters signed an agreement in 1991 that they would work beyond the normal 160 hours a month and that they would be paid an allowance for the overtime. But the rates for that allowance were only calculated in 1992.

Then in 1994, the City decided that fire stations would operate on a three-platoon system instead of the seven-platoon one. This led to firefighters having to work 24 -hour shifts.

The agreement signed in 1991 lapsed in 2010, and the firefighters withdrew from it completely in 2017 and 2018.

The group of Fish Hoek firefighters said they have been working for the City in good faith since the agreement lapsed in 2010 and they rejected claims by the City that the contract had been renewed on a monthly basis.

Department of Labour spokesman Teboho Thejane confirmed the department had received the memorandum last month but did not elaborate on, what if, any action the department would take.