Dismissals soar as downturn bites

They sit side by side in straggling, dispirited queues at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in downtown Johannesburg: men and women; black and white; urban and rural.

Clutching creased and tattered contracts, dispute referral forms and old payslips, they wait to open cases of unfair dismissal and retrenchment against their employers. Most are anxious and seek reassurance that they are in the right place and have all the correct documents. CCMA staff walk up and down the lines, listening, helping to fill in forms, interpreting legal language and advising on what needs to be done before a case is opened.

Abenego Vilikazi* (30) and three of his co-workers get through the first stage and stagger to the front of the queue for a consultation with an official. They have no money and have walked to town. Their eyes are red and loaded with anger. “Umlungu uthi uvala iminyango.” (The boss says the company is closing its doors), says Vilakazi in a quavering voice. His lips are dry with fear.

The group says the small company, where they have worked for 11 years, failed to pay their salaries in December. “In December we did not get our bonuses and our boss did not come to pay us.” Vilikazi says when they challenged their employer “he said if he had to pay us all the money he owes us, he would be forced to close the company. We were angry and afraid, so we left to seek help here at the CCMA, and he did close down.”

CCMA director Nerine Kahn says the commission has seen a dramatic increase in the number of referrals since September and believes this could be a result of the “downturn” in the economy.

“The increases in individual cases and mass retrenchments are far greater than usual,” says Kahn. In September alone, referrals increased by 28% compared with previous months.

The CCMA saw a 12% increase in referrals from April 2008 to October 2008 compared with the same period for 2006/7. Nersan Govender, national general manager of operations for the CCMA, says this is one of the highest year-on-year increases in the history of the commission.

Most referrals come from sectors such as retail, business and professional and building and construction, says Govender.

But there has been an increase in referrals from industries such as the media, rubber and tyre manufacturers, para-legals, and retirement village staff — a phenomenon that goes against the CCMA’s referral trends. The helpline has been swamped with calls from employees inquiring about their legal rights because of concern about their job security.

* Not his real name

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