Johannesburg - A government department tasked with protecting workers from working under hazardous conditions has been ordered by a court to protect its own employees from the same.
The Department of Labour’s employees emerged from the Labour Court on Tuesday with smiles on their faces after Judge DH Gush ruled that they don’t have to report for duty at a building in the Joburg CBD that was closed down for not being habitable.
The workers had turned to the courts after allegedly being threatened with disciplinary action for not reporting for duty at their offices at 135 Commissioner Street, although health inspectors from the Department of Labour had issued a prohibition notice declaring it inhabitable and that the employer could not occupy it or allow employees to work there.
An employee who was at court said the building was fraught with problems.
“The air conditioner is not working, there is no proper airflow, humidity is extremely high, there is mould on the walls and there is a sewer leakage as well.”
According to Gracia Rikhotso of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and Henry Holl of the Public Servants’ Association, those problems took a heavy toll on the health of the employees.
They started experiencing a variety of health issues such as headaches, shortness of breath, bronchitis and diarrhoea. Absenteeism went up and medical aids were exhausted.
As the department also helps TB patients to claim for grants, Rikhotso said there were cross-infections due to the lack of proper ventilation.
After complaints from employees, the department commissioned an independent study into the building.
The National Institute of Occupational Health released a report listing all the problems with the building. A prohibition notice was later issued, and the building was shut down on October 31.
Then, 18 days later, the prohibition notice was replaced with an improvement notice.
Rikhotso said the improvement notice was issued without following proper procedures and that the condition of the building was not improved in any way.
The unions told workers not to report for duty at the building but rather go to the head office in Braamfontein.
The department issued letters to employees, demanding that they return to the offices. On December 14 it issued a final ultimatum to go back to work in the building, or it would be assumed that they were on an unprotected strike. There were threats of disciplinary action.
The workers applied for an urgent interdict that they should return to the building only after the issue of the prohibition and improvement notices has been heard.
Judge Gush granted the order on Tuesday.