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The News Line: Feature 48 SOUTH AFRICAN FEMALE FIREFIGHTERS ARE SUSPENDED! – after working conditions protest THE SOUTH African City of Ekurhuleni on Monday suspended 48 female firefighters after they protested about their working conditions and the non-payment of shift allowances.

The female firefighters demonstrated in Pretoria two weeks ago complaining about conditions of service in the city, including having to work more than eight hours a day.
Arthur Mbonani, a shop-steward from the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) in Ekurhuleni, denounced the suspension, saying the workers attended an event organised by the metro during Women’s Month.

‘It was there that the workers spoke among themselves about their work conditions.’
Mbonani said the workers decided to go to the Union Buildings in order to raise their issues due to frustrations they have had about nonpayment of extra shifts and allowances.

‘Their complaints were that they need to be paid certain allowances which they believe in terms of the conditions of service, they are entitled to – night shift and danger allowances and for extra hours that they work daily. ‘As essential services they work extra hours than the normal hours that are in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Those hours should be regarded as overtime and should be paid as such.’

Mbonani said firefighters in the city work for 11 hours during the day and 13 hours when on duty at night, as opposed to the normal eight hours. Mbonani said the workers wanted the city to pay for the extra three hours on the day shift and five hours on the night shift as overtime. ‘It is the plight of all firefighters. It has been raised by all of them, a long time ago through us, Samwu, and we are still engaging on it,’ he said.

Samwu’s regional secretary Thokozani Nkosi said: ‘The main thing is that they were suspended for demonstrating wearing uniform… which we are challenging as the union.’ The suspensions of these female firefighters coincides with the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, demanding that the safety of workers must become a national priority after at least 11 workers, including three firefighters, died last week in horrific disasters.

Vavi declared: ‘In three successive days in the first week of September 2018, at least eleven workers died and dozens were injured in horrific disasters, which were not the result of “accidents” but of employers’ failures to comply with safety regulations.

‘The week began with the explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) factory in Macassar, near Somerset West, which destroyed the entire building, and damaged blast walls around it. The noise could be heard 30km away. At least eight workers were killed.

‘Given the extremely dangerous substances that such a factory produces, there ought to be exceptionally strict rules to ensure that such incidents never occur, yet RDM CEO Norbert Schulze said there have been three other incidents there and at another site in the past 10 years. ‘One of the incidents was a fire which we had in one of the places here, we had three people injured and one fatality.

‘We had the second case in Arlington in one of the plants, which is a chemical plant of ours, and it caused damage to the building but no damage to people… There was also leakage at one of the tanks on this site, but that had no effect on workers or the surrounding area. ‘The explosion has also raised the question of whether factories making such products should be close to residential areas, which could be affected by such explosions. Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille has already demanded that the factory be moved from Macassar.

The next day there was a collision between two Metrorail trains at Selby, Johannesburg. Fortunately there were no fatalities but 112 people, including four Metrorail workers, suffered injuries and many were taken to four local hospitals...
‘The next day saw another horrific tragedy when three firefighters, members of DEMAWUSA, died while trying to extinguish a fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg occupied by the Gauteng Departments of Health‚ Human Settlements and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

‘One fell from the 23rd floor and the other two died from smoke inhalation. Eight other firefighters were hospitalised for injuries and smoke inhalation and a ninth was admitted to hospital due to exhaustion. The trauma of losing three of their colleagues in Wednesday’s fatal fire in Johannesburg has led to more firefighters being hospitalised.

‘1,115 public service workers had to be evacuated, and other nearby buildings were also evacuated, as the fire raged on for three days. ‘What is absolutely shocking is that the Gauteng Premier, David Makhura has admitted that the building did not comply with health and safety standards‚ scoring just 21%, when the minimum standard for human habitation is 85%.

‘This was revealed in a report on this, and other other government buildings, which was presented to the provincial government just a week earlier. The report showed, and therefore the government knew, that ten floors of the Bank of Lisbon building were not safe for occupation.

‘A terrible example of the building’s faults was that when the firefighters arrived on the scene, the building did not have functioning fire extinguishers and the water pressure and emergency exit routes were inadequate. ‘Gauteng infrastructure development MEC Jacob Mamabolo also acknowledged that the Bank of Lisbon building was one of eight government buildings which were deemed unsafe.

‘In a chilling admission he added that “Some buildings are below Bank of Lisbon”! SAFTU demands that he names them and inform those working in them. ‘Makhura says some departments were in the process of moving and that “the plan was to move all of them, and that gets done in phases.”

‘The provincial government will now find temporary offices for all staff in the eight unsafe buildings‚ the process of finding new buildings would be fast-tracked. They aim to have new offices for the three departments housed in the Bank of Lisbon building by Monday. ‘This is far too little and too late. The public service unions have every right to refuse to work in any of these eight buildings, or in any other replacement buildings until they have been made fully compliant with all regulations.

‘The disgraceful failure to not have already made these eight buildings safe must be linked to budget cuts announced by the province in February. The department of human settlements received about R500m less, while the infrastructure programme budget was cut from R12.2bn to R11.32bn.

‘A similar issue arises with the Johannesburg Emergency Management Service, which is also suffering from budget cuts leading to shortages of fire engines and equipment, that put firefighters at even more risk than they are already. ‘The firefighters themselves are extremely angry. ‘DEMAWUSA members raised the state of the fire service in 2015, and complained about the lack of readiness due to cuts in the budget and the risk this placed on the public.

‘The reaction of the then ANC City Government was to suspend the firefighters who went public, some for up to six months, for speaking the truth. They were reinstated and won their case, but very little changed. ‘It now emerges that expert advice, given shortly after this attempt to silence firefighters, was that Joburg needed a minimum of 104 appliances to cover the City, when in fact, only seventeen are operable! Fire engines are often only able to do one trip before they have to be sent back for repairs. ‘Members of the public have inundated radio stations praising firefighters, but also saying that when they have reported a fire, especially in vulnerable poor communities, the fire service has said that they cannot respond because their appliances are being used elsewhere.

‘The common thread linking all three atrocious incidents is that protecting workers’ safety and security, and even their lives, are nowhere near the top priority for government and employers. Neither is the delivery of good service to the people a top priority.

‘PRASA has refused to invest in providing a safe and efficient service for its mainly working-class passengers, while the money that could have been used to pay for this necessary overhaul was falling into the pockets of some of its directors who were looting millions of rands of its assets. ‘The Gauteng government’s failure to make buildings safe is closely tied to their financial mismanagement.

‘One of the departments using the Bank of Lisbon building for their workers is the department of health that sentenced 144 psychiatric patients to death between 2015 and 2017 after transferring them from private Life Esidimeni health facilities, to largely ill-equipped NGOs, in order to save money. ‘These disasters need not have happened. Firefighters know all too well the risks their job entails, but they should never die fighting fires which could have been prevented by proper safety standards being maintained!

‘Nor should workers ever have to risk their lives working in buildings which their employer knows are dangerous. ‘SAFTU demands that workers’ lives must never be lost because their employers are more interested in cutting costs, and in particular are themselves corruptly looting the money which should have been used to bring buildings up to standard.

‘Safety at work will now become one of the central demands of the mass campaign in which SAFTU and its allies in communities and civil society are mobilising, leading to the three-day general strike later in the year.’
 
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