South Africans flood CCMA offices over retrenchments, unfair dismissals

People queue outside the CCMA office in Johannesburg this week
People queue outside the CCMA office in Johannesburg this week

The massive loss of jobs – brought about by the Covid-19 coronavirus – has resulted in hordes of people flocking into the offices of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which began operations again last week for the first time since the nationwide lockdown began in March.

When the CCMA’s doors opened last Wednesday, South Africans rushed into its offices, hoping to get some sort of assistance.

Many people’s livelihoods had changed drastically as a result of unfair dismissals and retrenchments.

Eagerly awaiting their turn to have their cases heard, six men stood outside in a group while they filled in “the necessary forms to open a case against our company”.

Among them was Eric Radingwane, who told City Press that “things at work started going badly when the lockdown began”.

“We were last paid at the end of March,” he said.

“But we were not paid last month or early this month. On May 7 we were given letters telling us that the company was being liquidated, but we know that’s a lie.

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“There are still people working there. How can some of us be told that we no longer have jobs because the company is being liquidated as a result of the lockdown, while others are working?”

Radingwane, who had worked for the freight company for five years, said their now former employer had told them that we “will not get any kind of severance package”.

“We decided to come to the CCMA, hoping for some kind of assistance and to somehow get some money from the company so we can survive.

Times are already tough because of the virus and we probably will not be able to get jobs any time soon
Eric Radingwane

“Times are already tough because of the virus and we probably will not be able to get jobs any time soon. The company must compensate us,” he said.

“At least now this office is open and we can do what we need to do.”

Dorothy Mkone*, who has worked as a bookkeeper for a company she “cannot name for fear of victimisation”, had just finished opening a case against her now former employer.

As she walked out of the CCMA offices with the documents in hand, she said she was let go “at the end of April”.

“I have been with this company for more than 10 years and, on April 30, my boss called me and told me I had been retrenched, without any notice,” she said.

“I was working from home during the lockdown and then I suddenly got a call telling me that they did not have a choice but to let me go.”

Mkone said that although she was offered a “package”, it was not nearly enough to compensate her for the number of years she had been at the company.

“The package I was offered was far less than the number of years I served and that is why I came here today,” she said.

“My case was referred to a commissioner who highlighted all the issues. She helped me. I completed all the forms that were required and I was given a case number.”

Siyanda Sibanyoni (28) was eagerly waiting in the queue. He had not worked since March and has had no source of income since then.

“The company I work for refused to apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) on my behalf. I first went to the department of labour to seek assistance and they directed me to the CCMA,” said Sibanyoni.

He said he worked as “a van assistant for more than four years”, adding that “according to my payslip I have been contributing to the UIF every month”.

“I found out that I could claim UIF. However, my employer, for some reason, has refused to apply for it on my behalf,” he said.

“The department of labour informed me that my employer should apply for UIF for me. I am now not sure what is supposed to happen. Hopefully, I will get assistance today.”

Last month, Jackson Mthembu, the minister in the presidency, said it was concerning that so few employers were making use of UIF.

“Can we appeal to employers? There are very few who are applying on behalf of their employees for this benefit. We’re asking them to do so, particularly in the farming sector and domestic sector,” Mthembu said.

Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, spokesperson for the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, warned employers not to take advantage of Covid-19 to unfairly dismiss employees.

“Our members are experiencing extreme hardship at this time. Brutal employers have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to vary conditions and restructure,” she said.

Hlubi-Majola said the union would defend their members facing retrenchments because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Senzo Qhubeka (30), a mine worker, told City Press that he was handed a letter of retrenchment after he complained about the lack of social distancing at work.

“My boss handed me a letter of retrenchment after we complained about the lack of readiness in the mines. There is no social distancing or any safety measures to protect us from this virus. The truth of the matter is that we fear one another but we have to work constantly together underground. It’s not safe.

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“I had to file a case with the CCMA because I don’t think it is fair for my boss to retrench me for speaking against the working conditions. I don’t want to get sick,” he said.

Sizwe Pamla, spokesperson for Cosatu, did not mince his words, saying the union federation would not accept any retrenchments caused by the lockdown.

“We still stand by our stance, which is that if employees find that their workplace is not fit for work, they should refuse to work. We will not accept any retrenchments caused by the lockdown. That is why we are calling on the Minister of Employment and Labour [Thembelani Thulas Nxesi] and the Minister of Mineral Resources [Gwede Mantashe] to help us protect the rights of our members,” Pamla said.

Amanda Banga (35), who worked on a farm, said she was “released from my job” because she was unable to prove that she was Covid-19 negative.

“When the lockdown started, we were allowed to continue to work, but one morning my boss said we had to prove that we had tested negative for the virus or not return to work.

“But because I didn’t have money to test at a doctor he told me that I could not go back to work. I have four children and now I am unemployed,” she said.

Last week Mantashe said that he had ordered employers in the mineral and energy sector on Tuesday to withdraw retrenchment letters.

Cameron Morajane, the director of the CCMA, said the commission witnessed a substantial number of cases on Wednesday in all its offices.

“These were apart from enquiries on other labour matters. Our Johannesburg office alone received between 300 and 400 cases,” he told City Press.

With the number of cases reported to the CCMA expected to increase, Morajane said: “Measures have been put in place to ensure that the CCMA has adequate capacity and resources to deal with the hike in referred matters.

“Even though we resumed operations with a reduced staff complement, we will ensure that we will attend to all matters referred,” he said.

Measures that had been put in place included “proceeding with an online referral application process, an increase in our capacity to attend to matters through telephonic conciliations to expedite cases and an increase in the number of staff members who are working remotely to attend to administrative matters”.

*Not her real name

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