Overtime dispute

South Africa - Cape Town - 13 September 2019 -  Around 100 firefighters affiliated with the South African Municipal Workers' Union (SAMWU) gathered at the Goodwood fire station to attend a union meeting where they were discussing the issues they face regarding overtime pay. Firefighters are planning to stop working overtime from the 1st of October. They claim they are only being paid 12% of what they are suppose to be paid during over time hours. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Most of Cape Town’s firefighters have embarked on a go-slow following a dispute with the City over overtime pay.

As from Tuesday this week, they are working only from 8am to 4.30pm.

The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU), which represents close to 80% of the City’s firefighters, said its requests for negotiations with the City had been unsuccessful.

“This dispute we have with the City is not a salary increase; we have no issues with that. Our dispute is regarding the rate we earn when we work overtime, our allowance rate,” said Samwu representative, Archie Hearn.

“As per law, an employee must work 160 hours a month, but firefighters work an average of 240 hours a month. During that
extra 80 hours, we earn R71.12 per hour as opposed to the R153.96 per hour we earn during our regular shift. We feel that is not right as we are working extreme hours but are not being paid for it.

“What we are asking for is that our allowance rate is the same as our regular rate because right now it is less than half.”

According to Mr Hearn, the firefighters signed an agreement in 1991 that they would work beyond the normal 160 hours a month and be paid an overtime allowance. But  the rates for that allowance were only calculated in 1992.

Then in 1994, the City decided fire stations would operate on a three-platoon system instead of the seven-platoon one. This led to firefighters having to work
24 -hour shifts.

“These systems were all put into place before most of the senior firefighters even started working. The cost of living and the population of Cape Town has risen so
much since that time, but firefighters still have to earn our salaries and work in conditions that were decided during apartheid,” Mr Hearn said.

The agreement signed in 1991 lapsed in 2010, and the firefighters withdrew from it completely in 2017 and 2018.

Mayco member for safety and security, JP Smith, said the 1991 agreement had been signed regularly by the firefighters until 2007 although it had continued to have effect until 2010.

At that point, he said, the City and the firefighters’ unions – Samwu and Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (IMATU) –  had agreed to extend it until a new agreement was negotiated.

“When negotiations to review the collective agreement started, the City offered to increase the standby allowance to 30%, but this was rejected. Voluntary arbitration saw a 35% allowance offer tabled, which too was turned down,” he said.

Mr Smith added: “Similar 24-hour shift systems exist across the world and elsewhere in South Africa.
The majority of firefighters prefer this shift system as it not only gives them a lot of personal time while on duty but also allows for multiple days off which gives them greater freedom than any other shift system would.

“On average, a firefighter would spend four hours per day responding to fires, with longer hours during peak fire season and fewer operational hours during off-peak fire season.

“The 24-hour shift system is optimal from an operational point of view, as shorter shifts compromise effective fire responses.”

Last Friday, close to 400 firefighters marched in the city centre to hand a memorandum to the City warning of their plans for a go-slow and to demand an increase in the allowance rate.

“We marched last week, but nobody from the City came out to acknowledge us. Eventually the City’s chief negotiator, Joe Barnes, came out to accept the memorandum, but this is the
third time he accepted our memorandums since last November and nothing has happened so we are not confident of anything happening this time,” said Mr Hearn.

Samwu threatened a go-slow in November last year but later decided against it.

“The plan was to do this last year but it was close to fire season and the firefighters decided to work. Tragically during that time, one of the firefighters, Candice Kruger, died in the line of duty on Table Mountain. The firefighters are understaffed and underpaid, many stations have unfilled positions for as long as 18 months,” Mr Hearn said.

Hout Bay fire station commander Timothy Wolmarans, who has been with the service for 37 years, said firefighters had prepared “really well” for the fire season, but still “have to listen to how lazy we are and that we just lie around all day”.

He added: “If you calculate my hours and add up what I should be earning, you can safely say that I have worked every third year for free. Now when we speak up, we are threatened by the City with notices.”

He said instead of the 40 hours a week he should be working he was working about 50.

“We are putting in even more hours than our regular shift, and we still end up with more. The regular shift
basically works roughly around 80 hours per month, which is something like three working days a week. But, you still earn more than when you are working overtime, which is not right. It’s actually ridiculous if you think about it and we are getting very fed up.”