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Cape Town fire stations under strain as labour dispute deepens

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The City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue service is taking strain as a labour dispute over a standby allowance and working hours deepens.

Over the last few months, officials have been battling it out with the two unions representing firefighters – the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) and the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu).

Western Cape Samwu secretary Sidney Flusk says Samwu is the majority union representing around 600 firefighters in the City.

Nearly all members of Samwu are said to be boycotting voluntary overtime hours in protest over the amount they get paid while on “standby”.

Flusk stresses that firefighters are overworked and put their lives at risk, and on hold, to serve the public.

After a lunchtime picket by off-duty firefighters at the end of last month, the union officially informed the City it would be withdrawing from a collective agreement that determines working conditions to enable a 24-hour service.

The City at one stage threatened to head to court as it labelled the move an unprotected strike.

It has also warned that it may hold some financially and criminally liable for any losses or damage to property as a result.

News24 understands that some of the 30 stations across the peninsula have experienced worrying shortages as officials play a juggling game to ensure there is enough capacity amid the dispute.

It appears there is a disconnect between the parties over the mechanics and finer details of a resourced fire service.

Firefighters work an average of ten 24-hour shifts a month.

Under contention are 80 of these 240 hours, which are classified as “standby” hours, but which firefighters feel are equivalent to working hours.

After a normal day of active duty between 09:00 and 18:00, firefighters are required to remain at the station until 09:00 the next morning on standby.

They are required to take turns manning the watch room for incoming calls and to attend to any call-outs.

The City’s safety and security director Richard Bosman refers to this period as “down time” and operational staff thus get paid a 22.8% allowance in terms of the collective agreement.

But firefighters who spoke to News24 say that this is not standby, as they are stuck at their workplace and not at home with their families.

They also stress that they receive the allowance only, no salary, for standby, Sundays and public holidays.

A firefighter and father of three based in Khayelitsha, who has been in the service for more than 20 years, said he loved his job but felt “exploited”.

“They don’t pay us Sunday time or public holiday time. We sacrifice so much. If I must tell you over the years how many birthdays I have missed, school concerts, because of the way that we work.”

Another firefighter says: “We can’t even go get a cool-drink because once we receive a call, we have to leave the station within three minutes and then attend an incident within 10 minutes”.

One of their gripes is that day shift staff, who work 160 hours, and operational staff, who work 240 hours, receive exactly the same remuneration.

They would like to be paid in line with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

[Source: News24]
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