Court stops immigration officers joining strike

The Labour Court in Cape Town on Thursday granted an order interdicting unions from calling on immigration officers to join Friday’s national strike.

Judge Deon Nel also ruled that the statutory essential-services committee (ESC) should hold a hearing not later than June 15 to decide whether the officers are essential-services workers.

His ruling followed an urgent application by Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and her director general. They asked for an order preventing eight unions, including the Public Servants’ Association (PSA) and the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, from ”calling upon, inciting or encouraging” members who are immigration officers to strike on Friday.

They also asked for a restraining order against non-unionised immigration officers.

According to their papers, the PSA represents the bulk of the about 1 200 officers in the Department of Home Affairs.

In an affidavit, the department’s director for employee relations, Ronald Oppelt, said immigration officers perform an essential service, and it would be unlawful for them to go on strike.

”The court will appreciate that in an era of global terrorism and organised crime on unprecedented scales, it is vital to maintain effective control of the republic’s borders,” he said. ”One potential consequence of a strike could be the complete cessation of international travel of persons and goods in and out of the country.”

In terms of the law, only properly appointed and trained immigration officers can carry out these duties.

Oppelt said that in October last year, the department asked the ESC for a formal ruling stipulating that immigration officers indeed perform an essential service. Because of a lack of response from unions, and the ESC not following its own procedures, this has not yet happened.

Nel said in his ruling that he was satisfied that the department could suffer irreparable harm if it did not get the order.

”It is a matter of concern to the court that a dispute has been referred to the ESC on October 16 2006,” he said. ”It is further a matter of concern to the court that the respondent parties [the unions and the ESC] have not acted within the time frames stipulated in the regulations governing the affairs of the ninth respondent [the ESC].”

He declined to award the minister the costs of the application, saying she should have brought it much earlier.

PSA Western Cape spokesperson Koos Kruger said his union had been taken by surprise by the application, and was disappointed by the ruling. He noted, however, that it did not forbid union members from striking of their own accord.

”We will wait for the department to serve the order on us and then we will map our way forward,” he said. — Sapa

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