SAMWU are actively delaying a new deal for firefighters because they know their 79% demand is unreasonable and unaffordable, writes City of Cape Town Mayco Member JP Smith. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)
SAMWU are actively delaying a new deal for firefighters because they know their 79% demand is unreasonable and unaffordable, writes City of Cape Town Mayco Member JP Smith. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

SAMWU is delaying a new deal for firefighters

By JP Smith Time of article published May 11, 2021

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It is necessary to correct continued misinformation by SAMWU regarding firefighter issues [‘City can end firefighters strife by suspending apartheid-era agreement’, IOL 11 May].

The current Fire Services agreement, which regulates pay and working conditions is not a ‘pre-1994 agreement’, a falsehood, which SAMWU uses to delegitimise the current lawful agreement which the union has in fact signed and supported several times over the years.

A March 2020 Labour Court ruling affirms that the current collective agreement is valid until a new one is agreed to by parties to the bargaining council.

The court further confirmed that all parties, including SAMWU, had unanimously extended a 2007 collective agreement in 2010, and again in 2014.

In 2018, all parties entered into voluntary arbitration on new working conditions, for which independent recommendations were made.

In October of that year, SAMWU gave notice of their unilateral withdrawal from the agreement, which resulted in the unprotected strike, which closed half of City fire stations until an urgent interdict was granted for the safety of all residents.

The Labour Court at the time ruled that SAMWU had no right to incite this illegal strike, especially given that firefighting is a designated essential service.

In all fairness, the City had no choice but to initiate disciplinary proceedings for all who participated in abandoning their essential services posts over the course of several days, despite prior warnings that this was illegal.

The City has however initiated talks to resolve the matter in respect of 439 firefighters so that disciplinary processes can be avoided, along with any possible sanction of dismissal.

While the full details are subject to the employer/employee relationship, a substantial number of firefighters have already approached the City to accept this proposal following a briefing session with staff on 29 April. During this engagement, about three persons made attempts to incite disruption, but by far the majority of firefighters appreciated the briefing on issues, which their union had failed to keep them up to speed on.

Disciplinary proceedings will go ahead for a smaller group of 55 individuals who are facing more serious charges for endangering residents by actively inciting and organising the illegal strike.

What Cape Town firefighters earn

Depending on rank, firefighters earn between R52,28 and R152,96 an hour. This amounts to a basic salary starting at approximately R20 000.

In addition, 40% of the basic salary rate is payable for benefits such as Pension Fund and Medical Aid contributions.

Finally, a standby allowance (currently 22.8%) is also payable over and above the basic rate.

To date, the 24-hour shift system has been upheld in all collective agreements between the City and all unions representing firefighters, including SAMWU.

Given that fires can occur at any time, the 24-hr shift system is rational, necessary, and beneficial to public safety and firefighters alike.

Firefighters work a schedule of 10x 24hr shifts per month, with time off in between. A firefighter works 7,5 hours more per month than other City employees in terms of on-duty activities during their shift period and/besides actual operational firefighting.

Although staff at stations are required to be on site and on standby after normal working hours, stand-down time is generally at their disposal to pursue activities of their choice in the absence of any emergency. Sleeping quarters, rooms, beds and bedding as well as recreational facilities are provided.

SAMWU’s demand has been that the standby allowance be increased to 79% of the basic salary. The City previously offered 35%, up from the current 22.8%, backed by an independent arbitration recommendation, which parties had voluntarily entered into. This offer was rejected by SAMWU.

The status of a new deal for firefighters

The truth is SAMWU are actively delaying a new deal for firefighters because they know their 79% demand is unreasonable. It is also unaffordable, and would amount to nearly R250 million more per annum.

The City is ready to review the current collective bargaining agreement at any time and any changes to the working hours and benefits of the firefighters will be negotiated between the City and both unions (SAMWU and IMATU).

If SAMWU is not happy with the outcome of collective bargaining talks, the law even grants them the option of compulsory arbitration, with a full opportunity to argue their corner to an independent panellist.

At the time of writing however, SAMWU have chosen to lodge a formal dispute with the SA Local Government Bargaining Council, rather than return to the table with the City and IMATU, who have been cited as respondents in the dispute.

* Alderman JP Smith is Mayco Member: Safety and Security for the City of Cape Town.

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

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