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Firefighters in Cape Town threaten action over wage disputes

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Firefighters in Cape Town are threatening to cut their working hours if the City of Cape Town refuses to heed their demands. Firefighters are arguing that the City is underpaying them by refusing to pay them for the full hours worked, while the City insists that the current “crisis” is created by SAMWU’s failure to constructively engage on the matter. Firefighters are threatening to abandon stations after 5pm, come the 1st October.

The provincial chairperson for the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), Sebenzile Kiva says that despite protracted negotiations with the City of Cape Town, firefighters remain underpaid and undervalued.

On Thursday, firefighters marched in the CBD in Cape Town demanding payment for what they regard as their overtime. Kiva explained that firefighters work long hours without being paid.

“Normal working hours for municipal workers is 180hrs per month – firefighters are working 240 hours, of which [the additional] are not being paid.”

He said the logic the City follows as a means of justifying their refusal to pay the additional hours is flawed.

“The reason the City gives, is that people are on standby. But once you’re on duty, on the premises of the employer, and under management, you are not on standby. Standby is when you are sitting at home waiting for the call. We are on duty as firefighters for 24 hours,” said Kiva.

Wage disputes are not the only problem firefighters are experiencing.

Kiva said firefighters are dissatisfied with working conditions at the stations and that there is insufficient consultation with firefighters where station transfers are concerned. Furthermore, SAMWU believes they have a strong legal case and have indicated that they will pursue the matter through the courts.

“We want the Department of Labour to check whether the City complies with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act or not,” said Kiva.

“On Monday we will be assessing the situation and involving our legal department to check what other avenues we can pursue. We have a case lodged at the labour court.”

Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security in the City of Cape Town, Alderman JP Smith said firefighters are being paid what they deserve and what the City can afford.  He has cited SAMWU’s failure to participate in an arbitration process as well as the union’s failure to proceed with court action as the reason for the dispute remaining in a state of limbo.

“The firefighters do get paid. The current crisis is created by SAMWU,” said Alderman Smith.

“We love our firefighters and we want to do the best possible for them within the viable financial means, but what SAMWU is asking for will cost R146 million instantly – money which simply isn’t lying around spare. The current delay is of SAMWU’s making and they need to come back to one of the two procedures – either court or arbitration – so we can wrap things up and help the firefighters move forward.”

Alderman Smith argued that while firefighters are present at the station for 24-hour shifts, little time is spent responding to fires and carrying out various duties. He also indicated that various benefits are received by firefighters in lieu of their time spent at the station.

“Whilst the firefighters are at the station for a 24 hour shift, on average they spend 4 hours responding to fires,” said Alderman Smith.

“They have some duties during the day, but for the rest of the time, their time is theirs. They can read, sleep, exercise and play games…so they have a fair amount of leeway with what they do with their time. Yes, they have to be at the station, but keep in mind that they get multiple days off…so you’re not working most of the time.”

“There are times in peak season when you’re working really hard and when the shift demands a full 24 hours, but that’s extremely rare. Most of the time they get a lot of free time and have days when they don’t respond to a single fire.”

The City has contingency plans in place for possible industrial action by firefighters and has assured the public that they remain confident in their ability to handle any situation that may arise.

Alderman Smith has simultaneously warned that the planned industrial action by SAMWU is unprotected and that participants risk facing serious action.

“The City has contingency plans in place – we’re not concerned. It’s a very small percentage of staff participating in the action and unfortunately, it’s not protected. So, if staff don’t stick to the shift systems, they expose themselves to possible HR (human resources) action…”


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