Firefighters facing disciplinary hearings for refusing to "work as required" meet with the City of Cape Town officials at the Cape Town stadium. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)
Firefighters facing disciplinary hearings for refusing to "work as required" meet with the City of Cape Town officials at the Cape Town stadium. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

City can end firefighters’ strife by suspending apartheid-era agreement

By Mikel Khumalo Time of article published May 11, 2021

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The City of Cape Town cannot be allowed to have its cake and eat it. We should not allow it to heap all praise and glory onto our firefighters in public, but secretly treat them like rabid dogs.

After the recent Table Mountain fire, Mayor Dan Plato was quoted in the news media as saying: “I applaud our residents, firefighters, emergency personnel and everyone involved in responding to this fire. Thank you!”

A week later, Vincent Botto, the acting executive director for Community Safety and Security Directorate, at a meeting at Cape Town Stadium, demanded that firefighters admit guilt for ill-discipline.

We believe the City has been caught between a rock and a hard place and hoped that its attempts to discipline the firefighters will go unnoticed by doing it in an underhand manner, away from the public gaze.

Everyone, except firefighters, were denied access to the meeting, where an ultimatum was issued to the firefighters to sign this admission of guilt.

The City offered 439 firefighters a deal, which would not be offered to another 55 firefighters regarded as the ringleaders.

These so-called ringleaders will face the full might of the disciplinary process and possible dismissal.

A clear old apartheid-era tactic of divide and rule. The firefighters rejected these attempts to intimidate and divide them, and continuously disrupted the speakers, and objected to the City calling them heroes.

Instead of giving their ‘heroes’ medals or acknowledgements, the City intends to reward them with letters of termination, docking their salaries and other prejudicial measures.

So what is all this about? Why are the City of Cape Town and the firefighters at loggerheads?

In 2019 the firefighters decided to work an eight-hour shift instead of a 24-hour shift as per demand by the City of Cape Town and its old apartheid-era Fire Lapse Agreement.

This outdated Fire Lapse Agreement was signed in pre-1994 South Africa between the Cape Town City Council (CCC), the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association (CTMWA) and the South African Amalgamated Municipal Employees (SAAME).

CTMWA (now Samwu) had roughly 30% representation among firefighters, while SAAME (now Imatu), the majority union, represented mainly officers and white firefighters.

SAAME sided with the CCC, culminating in the current outdated Fire Lapse Lapse Agreement.

As times changed, the composition among firefighters also changed, with most members being black, and they have their working hours regulated by a Fire Lapse Agreement that was enacted by an apartheid-era municipality which gave preference for the employment of white people, especially in managerial positions.

Currently it does not take into consideration the conditions, interests and wishes of the majority firefighters.

At the time, the CCC did not represent firefighters from other municipalities, which later amalgamated with the CCC in 2000 to constitute the City of Cape Town, which is now also governed by this agreement that it was not party to.

More than 500 firefighters at various fire station depots across Cape Town are facing possible dismissal.

Firefighters, 90% Samwu members and some Imatu, are facing disciplinary hearings and dismissals for demanding their rights, guaranteed by South African labour laws and afforded to other municipal employees.

At the heart of the dispute is the Fire Lapse Agreement, working hours, a 24-hour shift, leave pay, overtime work and remuneration.

By 2010, things came to a head. Firefighters felt the 24-hour shift was starting to have a major impact on their lives, putting their lives at risk in the line of duty.

It became evident that the long shifts caused them to make serious mistakes, putting their lives, and the general public in danger.

City Fire and Rescue showed complete intransigence in dealing with the issues of firefighters, leading to protests against the Fire Lapse Agreement and working conditions in 2019.

As a form of protest, firefighters clocked in at the beginning of their shifts and clocked out after eight hours on duty, interpreted by the City as a strike, and it approached the courts to force the firefighters back onto the 24-hour shift system.

The Labour Court ordered the City and the unions to enter into negotiations to work on a new Fire Lapse Agreement.

The firefighters returned to the 24-hour shift and, instead of starting negotiations, the City started with disciplinary procedures against 525 firefighters.

The City’s response was to charge them with ill-discipline and the shop stewards and some vocal members with incitement, deemed to be more serious offences.

Firing more than 500 firefighters is a recipe for disaster. It puts the city at great risk, in times of disaster.

Because of Covid-19 the City of Cape Town is forcing the firefighters to attend disciplinary hearings online, with no representatives present to advise them.

Online meetings are a new technology, which firefighters are unfamiliar with and alienating to many of them, causing some to feel intimidated and prejudiced.

On Monday, April 19, while battling the fire on Table Mountain, the City sent text messages to the firefighters to appear at a disciplinary hearing at 9am.

It seems like the City of Cape Town is hell-bent on showing the firefighters who is the boss and engaging in a campaign of union bashing.

The demands of the firefighters regarding this issue are simple:

* Stop all disciplinary processes against all firefighters;

* Immediately suspend the old Fire Lapse Agreement;

* An 8-hour shift;

* A 40-hour work week;

* Remuneration for overtime, time worked over and above the 40-hour week and compensation for work on weekends and public holidays;

* Negotiate with the worker representatives, Samwu and Imatu for a new Fire Lapse Agreement.

If the City of Cape Town, firefighters and their representatives can agree to these simple and straightforward demands, there will be no need for strife, and our fire and rescue service stations will become pleasant workplaces where people will work together in harmony to keep the residents of the city safe against fires and other hazards and disasters that plague us regularly.

* Mikel Khumalo is the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) regional secretary in the Cape Town Metro.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media and IOL.

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