Johannesburg - The National Lotteries Board will be forced to fork out more than R11 million in backdated salaries and legal fees for 10 employees it dismissed six years ago.

On Thursday, in a groundbreaking judgment, the Constitutional Court overturned the dismissals the board effected in 2008, ordering that the workers be reinstated and their legal fees and salaries for the past six years be paid by the employer.

They were dismissed after calling for the resignation of the board’s then-chief executive, Professor Vevek Ram.

The workers addressed a letter to the board raising grievances about Ram’s leadership through their shop stewards.

The board refused to give them information about Ram’s contract, and the matter consequently went to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration for conciliation.

Outside the conciliation process, the employees wrote their own petition supporting the union, but went further in demanding the dismissal of the chief executive, stating that if it was not done by a certain date, they would not work in the same building as him.

This conduct by the workers led to the institution of disciplinary proceedings against them.

The workers had gone from the Labour Court to the Labour Appeals Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court hoping to get a different verdict.

The attorney for the 10, Ndumiso Voyi, told The Sunday Independent that legal fees alone amounted to roughly R1m.

“On the salaries, it’s millions. These were all managers and supervisors – no lower-level employees,” he said.

The lowest-paid employees had in all likelihood earned R10 000, but there were also bonuses and increases.

Tallying the legal fees, Voyi said the costs for going to the Constitutional Court were more than R300 000.

“We needed R150 000 to prepare the record alone. In the Labour Court, the matter ran for more than three days. That was over R200 000. The Labour Appeal Court costs were around R50 000, and the Supreme Court of Appeal costs were close to R500 000,” said Voyi.

None of the dismissed employees plan not to return to the board because of a breakdown in the working relationship between them and the board.

“We are dealing with people that were persistent. They worked as a collective. They wanted nothing other than reinstatement,” explained Voyi.

Speaking to The Sunday Independent this week, one of the employees, Tshepo Setsetse, said he was “over the moon – the Constitutional Court has restored my dignity”.

He said he felt vindicated by the judgment.

Setsetse was a contact centre supervisor at the time of his dismissal.

His return to work could be as early as next week, but the employees’ attorneys and unions are still in discussions with the board about time frames.

Six years after being axed, Setsetse says he and his colleagues are going back to the board with a positive attitude and are not bitter.

“The majority of us are looking forward to going back and picking up where we left off. It’s not about the monetary part of it, but that is a bonus,” he says, admitting it had not been easy on their families.

“Some of us are married with children. Some had to take children out of the schools they were in. I think we appreciate that our families stood by us.”

Setsetse lives in Bloemhof in North West, and after he was sacked he worked for his brother as a logistics manager.

The group was tight-knit, he says, and kept each other motivated when the will to carry on with the case waned.

“People were doing this and that just to survive,” he adds.

Losing at the Supreme Court of Appeal was a low point, says Setsetse.

But, he adds, they knew their case and were confident that another court would reach a different conclusion.

Aside from him, there were two grant officers, a grant co-ordinator, a human resources officer, a call centre consultant, three compliance officers, and a driver.

The part of the judgment that stood out for him was the “lawfulness of their actions”, says Setsetse.

“The court said that our actions did not amount to unlawfulness, but were critical union activities protected by the constitution.

“Employees must understand what their constitutional rights are and know how far they can go to protect their rights. We did not want to offend anyone. We just stood for what is right,” says Setsetse.

In the majority judgment, Justice Raymond Zondo found that the dismissal was automatically unfair.

As an organ of state, the board violated the employees’ rights.

“This court must vindicate the union’s rights and the rights of its members. In my view, the only appropriate way to vindicate the union’s rights and the rights of the employees in this case would be to order the reinstatement of the applicant’s employees,” the judge said.

“Indeed, it also violated the rights of the trade union to engage in any lawful activity and to serve the interests of its members in the workplace.”

Sunday Independent