Long fight for ex-Justice staff

2009-08-27 00:00

AFTER winning a case against their dismissal from the local Master of the High Court office, which dragged on for almost two years, the joy of 18 former employees has been short- lived.

Instead of being reinstated in their jobs, they learnt that the Justice Department is going to ask for a review of the decision reached in a bargaining council arbitration hearing on the matter.

The workers have had their lives on hold for the past 18 months since their dismissal on New Year’s Eve in 2007. Many of them, once breadwinners, have had to depend on family members for support. Some have lost their cars and houses because they were unable to keep up the payments.

The workers had been employed at the court on a contract basis for between five to nine years. When the Justice Department made the contract positions permanent, the Pietermarizburg workers said they expected that, like other employees in the country, they would be appointed to substantive positions.

Commissioner Pat Stillwell, making his ruling during the arbitration hearing, said that according to the uncontes­ted evidence of all the applicants, the assurance that their contracts would be renewed came from “no less an individual than the chief master himself”.

He said that given that si­milar assurances were given, and in fact carried out in other provinces, he was satisfied that the applicants entertained a legitimate expectation that their contracts would be renewed on the same or similar terms.

Stillwell ordered the reinstatement of the workers and that they be paid out in respect of their loss of earnings between the dates of their dismissals and the dates of the arbitration award.

However, this did not happen. Attempts by The Witness to find out about the fate of the workers from the local Master’s office were in vain.

All queries were referred to Pretoria. An e-mail was sent two weeks ago and a response received on Tuesday.

Justice Department spokesman Tlali Tlali apologised for the late response and said the department has filed a notice of application to review and set aside the arbitration ruling. He said he could, therefore, not comment in detail until the review application has been finalised.

The Public and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (Pawusa) has expressed dissatisfaction that a matter being heard in a bargaining council arbitration has dragged on for such a long time.

Pawusa leader Alwyn Mathonsi asked why the department went to the expense of hiring senior counsel to deal with a bargaining council arbitration.

The department was also asked whether it has done a cost analysis and decided that it was cheaper to fight the case rather than employ the workers.

Tlali Tlali replied that the department will never wilfully be reckless with public funds.

The dismissal of temporary staffers at masters’ offices in 2007 caused a major upheaval and for a long time lawyers complained that the service at the courts was deteriorating as a result of the backlogs.

In October last year the Law Society of South Africa took up its members’ complaints about services in the masters’ offices.

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