Bay protests over job cuts, unpaid leave and wages owed

5 May 2020 by ZIPO-ZENKOSI NCOKAZI, ZIZONKE MAY AND MICHAEL KIMBERLEY 

Snaking queues outside the department of labour and protests outside a number of Bay companies shone a sharp light on a metro increasingly affected by job cuts, slashed working hours and forced unpaid leave — as SA hit day 39 of national lockdown.

And while SA moved to level 4 of the lockdown on Monday — with many returning to work for the first time in more than a month  — anger and fear over non-payment was the order of the day outside Lear Corporation, Spectrum Alert and Faurecia.

Outside Spectrum Alert’s Cleary Park offices, about 200 employees were protesting, saying that  they had not been paid during the lockdown and when they had phoned the labour department to ask about the temporary employer/employee relief scheme (Ters), labour department staff said Spectrum Alert did not reflect on the records. 

Some protesters said they feared Spectrum Alert had not paid over the money it had been deducting for UIF —  a claim CEO Trevor Harper vehemently denied. 

Spectrum Alert runs the Cleary Park IPTS route on behalf of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality.

One of the workers, who asked not to be named, said the company was subcontracted to the municipality so employees could not understand why their wages were affected.

“We understand that the operation was standing still but now the company is telling us that they submitted late the documents required for the Covid-19 relief scheme, so that means that application probably never went through,” the employee said. 

Staff member Justin Jacobs said employees had last been paid six weeks ago just before lockdown had been implemented.

He said since then they had not heard from the company until Friday when they were told to return to work.

“Now they want us to come and start working, but we cannot. We need those payments to be facilitated first or a clear way forward on how we will be compensated [made known],” Jacobs said.

The workers said they would disrupt operations again on Tuesday if not given answers.

At Lear Corporation in the Markman Industrial area, employees were equally tense.

A 41-year-old said she had been very upset on receiving a  text message saying she would be placed on short-time from April 17-30. 

“They sent us this message on April 21.

“Short-time means that we are on layoff and would not be paid,” she said.

“Last week, some of the people got paid while many of us who are contract workers did not see a penny. Can you just imagine?

“I have three children to take care of and my elderly mother as well.

“Everyone is home 24/7 and they all look to me to put food on the table and I don’t even have R1 to my name.”

Another employee said when they asked about the Ters application, the company said it had been rejected.

 The 42-year-old employee said they had called the department of labour to inquire and were told that the company had only submitted the application on Thursday.  

“My question is, how is it that we do not qualify for this money?

“They are deducting UIF from our wages every week.”

As half of Faurecia Interior Systems in Neave Township returned to work on Monday, others who did not receive the call demonstrated outside, saying they could no longer stand the burden of going unpaid for six weeks. Lear Corporation employees in the Markman Industrial area demand the money they say is owed to them by the company
Image: EUGENE COETZEE

Workers said the company had issued a statement telling them employees should take annual leave and those without leave would have to take unpaid leave or “business leave”, which meant money would be deducted over a six-month period. 

“Something is not right because we do not understand why they are now taking from our leave when they told us that they have applied for the relief fund,” an employee said. 

While Spectrum Alert’s  Harper contended a group of troublemakers were stirring up emotions, questions directed to Lear Corporation and Faurecia went unanswered. 

Harper denied allegations about the company not contributing to the UIF.

“We have applied to Ters and now it is out of our control. We are waiting for the decision from the bargaining council.

“We’re not the only company still waiting — we were told about 62% of companies have not been paid and we have explained this to them, but there are a few troublemakers causing the problem,” he said.

He said due to the regulations, the company should resume operations with 30% of employees, which would be on a weekly rotational schedule to ensure all workers got a chance to work.

Those not on the schedule would not be paid, he said. 

At Lear, workers said  the reporter should speak to the plant manager but, on asking for him, a woman came out and said no-one was available to comment.

During a later phone call, human resources manager Zeeyana Mohammed said no-one at the Markman plant could answer questions. 

At Faurecia, a man who answered the phone identified himself as the plant manager.

He said he was not in a position to answer questions but would forward the query to the CEO, who would phone back.

However, he had failed to do so by the time of going to print.

Phone calls to the company last week were not answered. 

Outside the labour department in Govan Mbeki Avenue, long queues were noted but the doors remained shut.

Sivuyile Vika said he had applied and was approved for UIF —  not related to joblessness as a result of the lockdown —  at the end of February.

He was supposed to return to the offices on April 4 to sign for the benefits, but was told to return on Monday.

He said security guards said the building would open on level 2. 

“I do not have money now. I walked here today because I desperately need this money.

“To wait for level 2 which may be months away just seems unfair,” Vika said.

Another beneficiary, Nolutho Mashinini, said she had been receiving UIF since December and received a payout for March but nothing since. 

“I cannot even apply for the R350 Covid-19 relief grant because I am already a beneficiary of UIF, but it does not look like I’ll be getting any money this week,” Mashinini said.

Bay labour lawyer Craig Jessop said  that during the lockdown the principle of no work, no pay would be applicable as work was  “impermissible in terms of government prescript”.

Jessop said this would have been the case for most employers in terms of level 5.

“Any payments thus made would be ex-gratia or by agreement.”

He said employees not working due to a business closing or partially closing due to the lockdown could — via their employer — make use of the UIF Covid-19 Ters application.

“When it comes to level 4, some employers may be permitted work at full strength or with a limited number of employees.

“In this context, there is no absolute restriction against work for some employees and the principle of no work, no pay would then not be of application for those legally permitted to work.”

He said employers should consult with affected workers and approach the employment relationship on the basis of “consultation and suitable operational requirement adjustments as per the labour law prescripts”.

This would include short time, rotation of staff, layoffs, possible voluntary retrenchment or ultimately retrenchments leading to conventional UIF claims.

“It is not a foregone conclusion that the employees adversely affected by this decision-making process would naturally benefit from Ters.

“The qualifying criteria would have to be carefully scrutinised.

“They would retain their rights to challenge the above in the normal course,” Jessop said. 

Labour department director-general Thobile Lamati reported that from April 16 to April 29, a total of 77,801 claims to the value of R4.47bn had been paid under the Ters programme   to 1.1-million employees.

In addition, 65,088 normal UIF benefits totalling just more than R1bn had been paid from March 26 to April 30.

However, UIF spokesperson Makhosonke Buthelezi said the scheme was unable to give figures on how many people had applied in Nelson Mandela Bay. 

Source: Herald Live at https://www.heraldlive.co.za/news/2020-05-05-bay-protests-over-job-cuts-unpaid-leave-and-wages-owed/