Blow to govt employees as Labour Court rules it can't hear 'death trap building' cases

In a blow to government employees who say the buildings they work in are unsafe, the Labour Court on Friday ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to hear applications brought in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act.

Employees from the Department of Correctional Services’ Poyntons building and the Department of Health’s Civitas building, both in Pretoria, approached the court in an effort to force their employers to comply with the Act and to stop them from disciplining them for refusing to work in these buildings.

The OHS Act places an obligation on employers to maintain a safe and healthy environment for their employees.

READ: Workplace safety: need-to-know info

The court did not immediately provide reasons for its decision on Friday, although they will be provided in writing at a later stage.

The Department of Correctional Services argued that the court could hear appeals in terms of the OHS Act, but had no further powers and that only a magistrate court had jurisdiction to enforce the Act.

There has been concern about the safety of buildings in the Johannesburg and Pretoria CBDs, highlighted by the deaths of three firefighters when a blaze broke out in the Lisbon building that houses government employees in the Johannesburg CBD last month.

The Star reported on Friday that employees at the Lisbon building had not returned to work.

Uninhabitable building

Poyntons workers, belonging to the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, said in court papers that, while their employer has said the building is safe to enter, the department has largely ignored two years’ worth of warnings about the state of the building, and that it will only be fully compliant with safety regulations in January next year.

The building was evacuated by Tshwane mayor last month, but it was reopened a few days later. Popcru says the building is still unsafe and wants employees to work elsewhere. The workers are adamant that this is not a strike and say they are willing to work, just not in this building.

Workers belonging to the Public Servants Administration (PSA) were also at the Labour Court on Friday. They also wanted to stop their employer, the Department of Health, from disciplining them for refusing to work in the building.

READ MORE: PSA takes government departments to Labour Court over 'unsafe' Civitas building

Their application was also dismissed, with the court similarly ruling it did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter.

Workers say the 31-storey building is uninhabitable.

Two fires broke out at the building in September, and, while no one was injured, the PSA says there are reports on the building that prove it is not compliant with health and safety regulations.

In both cases, the workers will have to return to the drawing board and decide whether to approach another court.

Both sets of applicants have promised to return to court, hoping that the merits of their applications will be heard.

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