‘Raw deal for graft exposers’
Pretoria - Laws have allegedly been broken and unnecessarily heavy-handed treatment meted out to workers at a state laundry facility. They have been offered a deal, including transfers, that corruption whistle-blowers be charged and their salaries be docked in return for going back to work after being locked out of work for more than a month.
These conditions were laid down at a meeting between the Public Servants of Association of SA (PSA), acting on behalf of Masakhane Laundry workers, and their employer, the Department of Health, on Monday. The employer offered that the workers return by the end of the week if they agreed that the corruption whistle-blowers be charged and those who’d been locked out be transferred.
The lock-out started five weeks ago – the result of a three-year stand-off between the laundry’s staff and the depart-ment– after an alleged job-for-sale scam was blown open. About 84 laundry workers were prevented from entering the Rosslyn plant on a Monday five weeks ago after they had refused to work the Friday before in protest against the return of seven staff fingered in corrupt deals.
Among those locked out were whistle-blowers, who had been gathering evidence since 2011 when the graft was first suspected. They had expected to be called to testify after the seven staff members suspected of graft were suspended last year.
But in July, managers told the workers that the suspended workers were returning to work because of insufficient evidence. The workers initially went on a go-slow and questioned the authenticity of the probe, because none of them had been invited to submit their evidence.
On a Friday five weeks ago, they resolved not to work, arguing they could not accept the findings of the investigation, especially since they were denied access to them.
The PSA intervened at the time and an agreement was reached that the workers return to work on the following Monday. But when they reported for duty, the gates were locked – and in the five weeks since, no one has given them reasons for the lock-out.
In the meeting on Monday, the employer apparently offered that the workers return by the end of the week if they agreed that the whistle-blowers be charged and those who had been locked out be transferred. “We met to find a way to lift the lock-out, but they gave us conditions we found unacceptable,” an official said.
The employer offered to allow employees back on condition the salaries of all who had participated in strike actions be docked. “We could not accept this. We’ll meet members tomorrow to get a mandate on the way forward.”
The offer has been called heavy-handed and un-necessarily harsh. Labour experts called it a breach of law. It would appear laws were not followed,” a Labour Department director, Stephen Rathai, said. He would launch an investigation, he said. “You cannot punish people for exposing graft.”
Lock-out procedures involved a perceived threat to property or person and could not be arbitrarily put in motion, he said.
The DA’s Jack Bloom said the workers were being victimised for revealing corruption. “While the no-work no-pay rule could be legally applied, these workers were being given a very harsh ultimatum.
“This is a clear case of shielding the alleged scammers, while those opposing their actions are being punished. This is in breach of all labour codes,” labour lawyer Mandisi Sidzumo said. Whistle-blowers were protected by law. She said: “No matter what the findings, they cannot be charged.” This action served to discourage the public from speaking out. The PSA will meet the locked-out workers on Tuesday before meeting the department on Wednesday. Health Department spokesman Prince Hamnca was unable to comment on the offer, saying resolving the dispute was “ongoing”.