Cape Town firefighters say that they are expected to put out fires while facing disciplinary action, and that they are exhausted and stressed.
Some of the 525 firefighters who are facing disciplinary hearings by the City of Cape Town say that their mental health has been negatively affected by the employer. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they are barred from making statements to the media about the issue, they say they continue to serve the public and their employer whilst having “an axe hanging over their heads”. “The issue has and continues to affect us. We can’t sleep at night, our families do not know how to deal with us. We are stressed and we still need to deal with communities. You have to go to work knowing that there is an axe hanging over your head,” said one firefighter.
According to Archie Hearne, the regional organiser of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), the current issue of the firefighters dates back to 2019 after the firefighters decided through a ballot process and majority rule to stop working 24-hour shifts and work 8-hour shifts instead. “The firefighters decided that the 24-hour shift is abusive, unfair, it’s long and exhaustive. We also agreed that it’s a health and safety issue. So in October 2019, they started to clock for 8 hours. The City suspended 43 firefighters including shopstewards. The City was not certain whether the clocking out after 8 hours amounted to [an] unprotected strike or not. We were then interdicted and the parties went to court. Both parties agreed that all workers return to their stations. We then went for judgement whilst they were working and 55 firefighters were suspended. The court in November last year ruled against SAMWU in that the conduct of the firefighters as essential service did not commit to their contract,” said Hearne.
The main bone of contention between the union and the City of Cape town stems from the issue of a standby allowance. The union feels that the 24-hour shift which includes time standing by is too long. The union wants the standby allowance to be increased from the current 22.8% to 79% of the basic salary. The City according to Smith has previously offered 35%.
Hearne said that the agreement the court used is a Fire Lapse agreement that the union signed in 2010 and that the City of Cape Town is not interested in negotiating a new agreement as suggested by the judgement. He further said that the union has tabled a new agreement but the City of Cape Town is not interested. “They have decided to discipline the workers and subject all 525 members to a disciplinary process. They do not have a desire to negotiate a new agreement but want to use an old, discriminatory, unfair and abusive agreement.”
“The City of Cape Town continues to cause division amongst the workers as they have called the 470 firefighters that they charged after the court ruling to a meeting where they tried to plea bargain with the workers. They told the workers that they want to negotiate a deal with them whereby the City would deduct the [costs of the] four days of [the unprotected strike] over a period of four months and the workers would have to sign a final written warning and… plead guilty. The 55 workers that include senior leadership and shopstewards are the ones facing disciplinary action,” said one firefighter. Elitsha understands that the meeting was held at the Cape Town stadium on Thursday and that no union leadership was allowed inside.
In a media statement, the Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security, Jeane-Pierre Smith, blamed SAMWU for the delay in reviewing the collective agreement on firefighters’ working conditions. “The City has also placed it on record by written confirmation to both SAMWU and IMATU that it is willing and ready to review the collective agreement on firefighter working conditions at any time. SAMWU is the only party delaying a new agreement for firefighters by submitting unreasonable and unaffordable demands,” said Smith.
The statement further confirms the meeting that took place at the stadium saying that it was meant to inform the firefighters who are not updated by the union and to avoid any possible sanction of dismissal.
Hearne said that they are reaching out to communities to come to the defence of the firefighters.