/ 16 December 2020

Angry workers denounce Mpumalanga coal haulier

201214 Sg Coal Mm001 1440x960
Workers at the logistics services company SG Coal in Breyten, Mpumalanga, have accused it of unfair working conditions and dismissals. (Magnificent Mndebele)

About 200 current and former employees of SG Coal, a logistics services company based in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, have accused it of unfair working conditions and dismissals. Among other things, the workers claim that the company forces its employees to work unpaid overtime. 

SG Coal hauls dry bulk goods such as coal, chrome and so-called run-of-mine minerals in tipper trucks. It has a monopoly on coal hauling in Mpumalanga and is said to have one of the biggest fleets of coal-haulage trucks in Africa. Its parent company is Super Group, a supply chain and fleet services company that is domiciled in South Africa but also operates in Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It has a footprint in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia as well.

The workers had been employed as temporary staff for years, but in March, before the start of the initial Covid-19 lockdown, the company registered them as permanent staff. “We were shocked when all of us were registered,” said Thabo Mkhabela, a representative of the workers who have since been retrenched. “This news surprised and excited us. But we were not afforded an opportunity to read our contracts. We later discovered that our contracts say all of us started working for the company this year.” 

Another worker representative, Vusi Yende, said: “We ended up signing the contracts because we are desperate for jobs and the company sees that we are hungry.” He says before he was laid off, the company changed his job description from truck driver to general worker without his knowledge.

The workers were retrenched about a month into the lockdown. They say the company cited financial strain owing to the pandemic and that 191 employees were made redundant. But SG Coal human resources officer Lanette Fourie disputes this, saying the company retrenched 136 workers, of whom 47 have declared a dispute. 

“Some of the workers have tried to introduce a union, but the company would make sure to flush [them out] and retrench all of them. There are people who’ve joined a union before. Some were called and bribed to exit the union,” alleged Mkhabela. 

Fourie refutes this, too. “SG Coal employees are welcome to join any union of [their] choice. The employees that spoke to you were members of a union. Employees’ right to belong to a union is enshrined in both the Constitution as well as the [Labour Relations Act]. The accusations of bribery and victimisation of employees to exit a union is a blatant fabrication,” she said.

Union intervention

The Voice of Workers of South Africa Civil Rights Union is among the unions fighting on behalf of the workers. The 18-month-old union is based in eMbalenhle, near Secunda, and is not affiliated with either of the two major federations in the country. 

Its president, Ntamnani Simvile, says SG Coal has failed to justify the retrenchment of the workers. “We’ve tried to engage with SG Coal, but those owners are disrespectful towards the workers,” said Simvile. “The retrenchments were not in good faith because the workers were not given three months’ notice.”

The union has challenged SG Coal in the labour court and the matter is continuing. Retrenched workers who live in Breyten in Mpumalanga say they haven’t received their unemployment benefits.

The workers say the company’s decision to register them as permanent employees shortly before the start of lockdown, only to retrench them a month later, indicates something sinister. “They said we will have to go sit at home and they can’t even claim from the UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund] TERS [Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme] fund, which we were not even aware of at the time. They registered us and then told us to go sit at home so that they could use our names to benefit,” alleged Mkhabela.

But Fourie denies the allegation. “All TERS monies claimed [were] paid to employees. Employees who are of the opinion that the company owes [them] TERS money are welcome to contact the company,” she said.

Vusi Mkhonza, 47, a father of four and grandfather of two, was also retrenched but was then called to work again. He says he hasn’t been given his contract. “I don’t know how much I make. I just see from the salary that is loaded in my account,” he said.

Heavy duties and threats 

Mkhonza works as a truck tarper, which is considered heavy-duty work. He was hospitalised for renal failure in 2018. Doctors instructed his employer that he should be given light duties, but he says this has been ignored.

He does not have medical aid and has to get dialysis three times a week at a cost of R1 990 a session, totalling R23 880 a month. Mkhonza says SG Coal doesn’t pay him on the days that he’s absent because of his doctor’s appointments. “If I was alright, I would have quit the company long ago to go look for a job elsewhere. I have two children who are still at school. I doubt I’d be able to assist them to further their studies. We are working just because one has to work, but honestly, it is difficult and almost unbearable,” he said.

“SG Coal mistreats Black workers. I have so much anger towards this company. Our rights in this company are infringed and disregarded. Some of those in power in the country have trucks and shares in the company and they are letting us down.”

Mkhonza says he applied for a disability grant on 13 November and required a signature from the human resources department at SG Coal’s head office in Middelburg. But when he arrived, Fourie threatened to shoot him.

Again, Fourie denies the claim. “Mr Mkhonza was never threatened by anyone of SG Coal and his allegation that the company wants to kill him borders on slander and is a blatant lie,” she said. 

Mpumalanga police did not respond to queries regarding Mkhonza’s alleged attack.

Lack of medical treatment

Mandla Psychology Khaba, a father of three and former truck driver, also accuses the company of unfair treatment. The 36-year-old was driving an “overloaded” truck with coal from Umlabu colliery, near Breyten, in late May when the vehicle overturned. He says the company sent for a breakdown service to recover the truck but didn’t care about his wellbeing. “They never called an ambulance and there was no checklist or a breathalyser that was conducted,” he said. 

Although he had no visible injuries, his back was sore. When the pain became excruciating, he went to the company’s doctor for a consultation. “I asked if there wasn’t any need for an X-ray scan. The doctor said there’s no need. He gave me pills and a sick leave note of three days,” Khaba said.

On 3 June, he went to another doctor, who also dismissed the idea of an X-ray. Khaba received an injection and was told to stay home for two days. The pain worsened and he was admitted to Ermelo Provincial Hospital on 8 June. “They gave me an X-ray scan and discovered that I have two cracks in my spinal cord,” said Khaba. The hospital’s doctors partially treated him and recommended a posture brace to support his back.

Unable to work, he submitted medical reports to SG Coal on 17 June to apply for compensation for an injury while on duty. Khaba says the mine safety officer initially refused to sign the documents. When he reported to the site manager, the person apparently said: “Your situation is not too complicated. Just wear the brace and you will be all right.”

Khaba says when he insisted on getting the form signed, the mine safety officer asked that the date of the injury be changed. He refused. “That’s when I became an enemy of the company,” he said. “They even stopped paying my salary.” 

Dismissal and despair

On 10 August, the site manager sent Khaba a text message that he needed to report for work the following day, failing which he would be dismissed. According to the attendance register, Khaba reported for work, but two days later he was dismissed without any warning. He says that after he was discharged from hospital, his bosses were aware that he could no longer drive a truck. Khaba says he believes he’s been dismissed for refusing to change the date of his injury.

Fourie, however, provides another reason. “Khaba was dismissed because he was absent from work for a prolonged period without permission and not for the fact that he was in a work-related accident,” she said. 

Khaba says the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, from which he sought help to investigate his unfair treatment at the company, has also failed him. 

“I was never part of the investigation. They did it on their own,” he said, adding that the first inspector appointed to investigate his case said it was complex and then told him that the site manager would sit down with him to resolve the matter. “I asked him that since I’ve sought help from you, how will I sit down with the manager?”

The second inspector, Khaba said, never had substantial information regarding any progress in his case. “The second inspector told me that the mine apologises and it will make sure that something like this never happens again.”

The department did not respond to a request for comment. 

Fourie responded: “Mr Khaba’s accident was reported to the [Workmen] Compensation Fund as all other work-related accidents are and it was Mr Khaba who did not follow the instructions of the [department]. Mr Khaba referred a dispute to the [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] that must still be adjudicated.”

This article was first published on New Frame