Settlement negotiations between fired Gautrain bus drivers and their former employer, Mega Express, have ground to a halt after yet another last-minute no-show by the bus company – its fifth consecutive cancellation since the Gauteng legislature attempted to bring both parties to the negotiating table.
More than 300 workers were dismissed by the company following unprotected strikes in protest of what the workers described as untenable working conditions relating to overtime and the provision of transport.
The workers resigned from the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu) in October last year after it distanced itself from a strike in August.
Ben Pama, a representative of the fired drivers, said on the day of the strike on August 8 last year, the union had claimed to have no know-ledge of the planned action.
"The only union representative who showed up did so at two in the afternoon," he said.
The union then issued a press statement "strongly" condemning the action. The workers' legal representative, Kevin van Huyssteen, has since been slapped with a R6-million damages suit by Mega Express for allegedly inciting the workers to strike.
In its collective settlement submission to the legislature, Mega Express demanded that the workers withdraw several pending matters, including an unfair dismissal claim referred to the Labour Court and an unfair labour practice claim referred to the South African Road Passenger Bargaining Council.
Lindiwe Lasindwa, chairperson of the Gauteng legislature petitions standing committee, said although the matter did not fit the criteria of a petition, the legislature had intervened because of the sheer number of dismissals involved. It could not dictate the outcome of the process.
"The contract is between Bombela Operations and Mega Express," Lasindwa said. "In a way, Bombela is supposed to intervene in the matter. While we feel strongly about it as the government, we don't have the power to tell them what to do."
The source of the drivers' problems seems to be the South African Road Passenger Bargaining Council's main collective agreement between the South African Bus Employers' Association, Satawu, the Transport and Allied Workers' Union of South Africa and the Transport and Omnibus Workers' Union. The agreement, signed on April 7 2011 while most of the affected drivers were Satawu members, was valid until March 31 this year.
Pama said the bargaining council agreement was signed by Satawu without the drivers' consent and without the presence of a legitimate workers' representative.
Satawu general secretary Zenzo Mahlangu said on Thursday that by the time the unions sat on the bargaining council, "all proper channels had been followed".
"If workers later resigned from the union it was because we could not negotiate over and above the agreements arising from the council."
The drivers contend that they work 11-hour shifts but are being paid for seven-and-a-half hours, amounting to 3.5 hours of overtime a day deriving from stoppage time. Drivers working for other bus services owned by Mega Express confirmed the company's unsavoury relations with Satawu.
One driver, who has previously worked for two different bus services owned by the company, said working conditions in Virginia in the Free State were so tough that it looked as if Satawu was firmly in management's pockets, given how ineffective the union was during its tenure. He said the situation improved only after the workers joined another union.
A driver employed by Mega Express's Gautrain bus service said conditions had not improved for the group of drivers hired after the dismissals, and the R35-a-day transport allowance was insufficient. He said workers negotiating with the United Transport and Allied Trade Union were seeking to get the union recognised by the employer.
Mega Express would not answer any questions on the matter and directed queries to the Bombela Concession Company.
In an email, Bombela wrote: "We have no direct involvement in the management or industrial relations of Mega Express.
"Mega Express has informed us that at all times they have followed the spirit and letter of the law in every respect."