/ 10 January 2022

Nehawu members “very anxious” and “worried” following parliament fire

Safrica Fire Parliament
Smoke billows from the roof of a building at the South African Parliament precinct in Cape Town on January 2, 2022, during a fire incident. - A major fire broke out in the South African parliament building in Cape Town on January 2, 2022. Firefighters were present at the building as large flames and a huge column of smoke were seen at around 0530 GMT. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

The National Education Health and Allied Workers Union’s (Nehawu) concerns about health and safety in the parliament precinct adds to growing concerns about apparent negligence at the precinct, which suffered a devastating fire on 2 January. 

In a letter addressed to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and National Council of Provinces chairperson Amos Masondo, the union’s branch executive committee (BEC) in the legislature suggested parliament, as the employee of its union members, was not doing enough to keep them safe.

“Considering the recent fire that engulfed our workplace, the BEC is convinced that the actions of the employer are not consistent with the (Occupational Health and Safety) Act and related regulations,” the letter reads. The Act requires employers to ensure a safe and healthy environment for their workers.

“As things stand, our members are very anxious and are not persuaded that parliament will be able to contain any further outbreak of fire and are justly worried about their safety,” Nehawu’s letter adds. 

It cites a report from the City of Cape Town’s fire department “in which parliament was found not to have in place the necessary precautionary measures to adequately respond to fire outbreaks”.

The report, released on Friday, found among others, that the sprinkler service at the legislature did not activate and was almost two years overdue for a service. It also notes the fire detection service appeared faulty and the alarm failed to activate until some time after firefighters had arrived in the early hours of Sunday, 2 January.

Nehawu further asserts that parliament did not implement recommendations made by a 2018 healthy and safety audit report. 

“Parliament was found to be non-compliant with 13 health and safety areas that were audited by a company named OHSA Health and Safety Consultants,” Nehawu claims. In addition, the union says parliament did not implement recommendations made by its safety, health and environment unit following another fire incident in March 2021. 

Consequently, Nehawu withdrew its members, saying: “none of (our) members will be reporting for duty at parliament until such time the precinct and its buildings have been declared safe to work in by competent bodies such as the department of employment and labour and independent authorities other than department of public works and infrastructure and parliament management”. 

Publically responding to the letter, parliament said it had already, on the day of the fire, informed workers of restrictions in the legislature’s precincts. 

“Due to these restrictions, the physical presence of most staff members, with the exception of the management directly responsible for the management of the fire incident, is not expected until further notice,” it said in a statement. 

It noted Nehawu’s concerns following the city’s fire report but added that the document “only contains preliminary observations … it neither purports to provide conclusive findings and evidence regarding the cause and the circumstances surrounding the fire incident nor provides an assessment of the safety of the other parliamentary buildings not affected by the fire”.

Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo told the Mail & Guardian a process was under way to  implement the recommendations made in the 2018 report. 

“Parliament had embarked on a process implementing the 2018 health and safety report and its recommendations since the report was finalised, with various aspects of it relating to ongoing maintenance, which parliament has been executing on a continuous basis,” said Mothapo, adding: “The claims and grievances of Nehawu form part of the continuing engagement between the union leadership and the presiding officers”. 

He said the two bodies were in discussions to resolve the union’s grievances and work together in the aftermath of the fire incident.