Bureaucracy is hindering an investigation into alleged human rights violations at a nonprofit animal shelter in the upmarket Cape Town neighbourhood of Hout Bay in the Western Cape.
It has been alleged that the majority of employees are foreigners without valid South African working permits; that they have been forced to live on the premises; are paid below the minimum wage; are expected to work overtime without compensation; and that no contribution to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) is made, despite the Domestic Animal Rescue Organisation (Darg) maintaining that it does.
Darg is a respected nonprofit that houses some 170 animals while providing “community care” to more than 750 animals. It also assists more than 60 animals from areas outside of Hout Bay, according to Natalee Kamieth, Darg’s financial director.
Despite receiving detailed information from two former volunteers at the animal shelter, the department of labour has not taken decisive action in respect of the allegations.
Instead, the animal shelter has now filed a dispute against the department at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration “in respect of compliance orders issued to Darg by the department of labour,” according to Kamieth.
Alan Schmaman, a former member and volunteer at Darg, alleged that the employees who stayed on the premises faced immediate retrenchment if they left during the country’s first hard lockdown. He also alleged that Darg does not pay UIF, leaving employees unable to claim financial compensation should they leave the premises.
In addition, the volunteer claims that employees are paid below the minimum wage, that the majority of employers at Darg are undocumented people, and that they work under abusive circumstances.
Schmaman and another volunteer reported this and more to the labour department in the province in November 2020.
One employee decided to stay on the premises during lockdown out of fear of not being able to support his family. During this time his wife gave birth to a son. It was only when the baby died shortly thereafter that the employee was given special leave to go to the funeral.
Another employee told the Mail & Guardian that he left the premises after staying one month “inside”. He eventually resigned due to “the way I was treated. It’s better for me to resign so that I can gain peace of mind”.
Kamieth told the M&G that staff members were given the option to reside on the premises, and should they leave they would not be permitted to return to the premises until the lockdown period was over, due to “quarantine issues”. She explained a large Wendy house was turned into living quarters for the staff members who decided to stay behind. They were also given three meals per day.
Darg confirmed it employs 12 foreign nationals, who are all in possession of permits. However, Darg did not agree to provide proof of the valid permits.
The organisation maintains it paid its staff members’ full 2% monthly UIF contribution between 2014 and July 2021, at which point it “no longer contributed the full monthly 2% of earnings but deducted the 1% from its employees and contributed the remaining 1% from the company,” explained Kamieth.
However, the M&G spoke to several former employees who claim they were not given any formal work contract to sign, nor were they asked to provide personal details such as their identification numbers, needed to apply for UIF.
Darg’s financial statements for 2017 to 2019 show an income of more than R17-million between 2016 and March 2019.
In June, the labour department confirmed it received complaints in February 2020. It confirmed “numerous reports” on the allegations have been compiled and that a final report will be drafted within seven days.
But such a report is yet to be finalised.
According to David Esau,, the provincial chief inspector, the labour department did compile a report regarding allegations at Darg. But that “there were no human rights violations” found, said Esau.
However, he added that they were only able to investigate “certain matters, such as conditions of employment” but could not investigate wages “as we could not engage employees as they are seldom on-site due to Covid-19.”
The M&G reviewed the payslips of two employees at Darg.
The payslips, from dates in 2021, reflect wages that do not comply with the current minimum wage of R21.69 per hour. One payslip reflected an hourly rate of R16.25 and another R18.75.
The M&G approached the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to enquire what steps, if any, were to be taken regarding the allegations it received about Darg.
In June human rights commissioner Chris Nissen said the department of labour was handling the matter and that “normally the SAHRC awaits other reports [before acting].”
But Nissen concluded, “I will make it my duty to bring these parties together” to discuss the matter.
However, only after the M&G enquired did the SAHRC and the department visit the animal shelter. According to Darg, Nissen visited its premises “in respect of alleged human rights violations against the staff members of Darg. This notwithstanding that the complaint was lodged more than seven months prior to his [Nissen’s] visit.”
In turn, Esau visited Darg on Thursday 24 June.
“It started as a disaster but ended up okay,” says Esau, who had to be escorted in by police after being denied access to the premises.
Following his visit, Esau slightly backtracked from his previous finding of no human rights violations, saying, “I have a particular concern about something.”
“I decided to take this matter [on] myself because I was getting tired of people giving me all kinds of information. And that’s why I called the whistleblower [Schmaman]. And I am dealing with it”.
Schmaman, however, says he has not received any calls from Esau.
Asked why the initial report was not acted upon earlier, and why he has decided to take matters into his own hands, Esau said it was a “follow-up” and he was committed to respond to questions sent by the M&G. But more than a month passed without a response.
Frustrated, Schmaman contacted the office of the public protector and the Public Service Commission (PSC) in respect of his dealings with the labour department. In May, the PSC gave the labour department 40 days to respond to its query. However, by the end of July, the PSC had not received feedback from the department of labour.
Meanwhile, yet another agency has become involved. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) in the Western Cape is also investigating Darg. Asked if the SIU is investigating allegations of Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme and UIF fraud at Darg, spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago could not elaborate on the matter and said it was at the assessment stage.
Ryno Engelbrecht, who was appointed as Darg’s facilitator between 2014 and 2017, confirmed to the M&G that it is aware of the SIU’s investigation and that they “have already dealt with all of their queries.”
Following a court case against the previous management at Darg during which an estimated R2-million disappeared and reports of negligence were investigated, animal activist Ryno Engelbrecht was appointed by the court as a facilitator to Darg in April 2014.
“The high court-appointed facilitator [Engelbrecht] and the current board of directors are currently in litigation with the previous dispensation of Darg for the misappropriation of public funds,” said Kamieth, Engelbrecht’s wife, who was appointed as financial director in the same year Engelbrecht’s tenure as facilitator ended.
Darg denies all allegations against it, and told the M&G that “should Darg suffer any damages as a result of unfounded and untrue allegations, we reserve the right to hold parties responsible for such damages.”