Workers locked in Wits office following pay protest

Outsourced electrical workers have occupied the MJL Electrical offices on campus, after not being paid. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Outsourced electrical workers have occupied the MJL Electrical offices on campus, after not being paid. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Twenty-three Wits outsourced workers, who have not been paid four weeks, were locked in an office at Wits University yesterday afternoon during a sit-in, allegedly by their manager.

The electricians, employees of MJL Electrical, are still in the office located in Central Block.

George Cresswold, the owner of the company contracted by the university, locked the doors at 4pm, after the workers decided to occupy  the office over the payment dispute.

He allegedly told them he believed they would steal computers and other office property if he did not.

“One of the workers was outside and he went to campus control and got them to unlock the door,” one of the electricians told Wits Vuvuzela this morning. He asked not to be named.

According to the electrician, deputy vice chancellor Prof Tawana Kupe attempted to resolve the impasse by telling Cresswold that if anything was stolen or damaged, he could sue him.

“I’ll pay for it,” Kupe said according to one of the electrician.

The workers have been in dispute with Cresswold, since the end of last year over outstanding pay. They returned to work one week ago, after nearly a month of not working, but once again were not paid for the last 23 days of work.

When contacted by Wits Vuvuzela, Cresswold was unavailable for comment.

Yesterday evening, the workers went into a meeting with Cresswold, Kupe, deputy vice chancellor Prof Beatrys Lacquet and Dawn Taylor, director of the university’s legal office.

Kupe and Lacquet organised for the workers to each be paid R400, so that they could get home but it was “too late and we didn’t want to risk our lives at one in the morning,” according to the workers. They also arranged for the workers to have KFC delivered to them after the meeting, as they had not eaten since being locked in the office.

In solidarity 

According to the workers, Cresswold wanted to “chase them out” even after they had been paid the R400, at around 1am. “He is a liar and dishonest man,” they said.

Wits Economic Freedom Fighters chairperson Vuyani Pambo, who was present at the meeting, said  the workers were “being treated as slaves”. During the meeting, Pambo said, Cresswold did not respond to questions on how to resolve the dispute.

“They have families, responsibilities and kids, but he [Cresswold] is only offering them R400,” he told Wits Vuvuzela late last night.

Lights out for electrical workers

NO POWER: Outsourced electrical workers at Wits have not been paid since January and have  not returned to work for several weeks. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

NO POWER: Outsourced electrical workers at Wits have not been paid since January and have not returned to work for several weeks. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Electrical workers employed by a Wits contractor allege that they have not been paid for six weeks, but they will not be getting any help from the university administration.

The outsourced workers, who are employed by MJL Electrical, have complained to the Wits Legal Office and activist groups but have not yet seen their back pay.

Trouble started for the workers when they noticed they had not been paid for the month of December, with both their salaries and bonuses outstanding.

According to one of the workers, Aubrey Saku, they were eventually paid in early January, but not the full amounts they were owed. Since then, they have not seen a cent from MJL Electrial.

A three-way dispute 

Prof Beatrys Lacquet, the deputy vice chancellor of infrastructure and operations at Wits, said the university has paid what it owes to MJL Electrical two weeks ago.

She said the responsibility for paying the workers is with MJL Electrical and not Wits.

“MJL management is responsible to run the company and comply with all legislation and regulations,” she told Wits Vuvuzela.

When reached for a response, MJL Electrical owner George Cresswold told Wits Vuvuzela that he does not want to comment on the dispute until he has met with the university and “given the process proper opportunity to take its course”.

“There is a solution,” he said. “And we are committed to making this work.”

A month later they were again not paid and have not worked since February 9.

The workers also allege that when they were paid for the month of December, they were not paid in full.

“We all worked for 10 days, but some of us were only paid for eight, or seven … We all had money deducted from our salaries,” Saku said.

Saku said Cresswold assured them they would be paid in full and the electricians continued to work for another month.

However, a month later they were again not paid and have not worked since February 9.

Cresswold again promised they would be compensated on Monday this week, but that deadline came and went without payment.

 

Chowing on taxes

The workers allege that Cresswold had been deducting tax from their salaries but they said they have never received IRP5 documents, the proof that their taxes had been paid to SA Revenue Service (SARS).

When confronted, workers said Cresswold admitted that he has never submitted their withheld money to SARS but promised he would, according to Saku.
“He has been chowing it,” Saku said.

The workers said in January that MLJ Electrical, which had been contracted for electrical repairs for the university, had run out of supplies which left them unable to do their jobs conducting necessary maintenance to Wits electrical system.

Lacquet said MJL is not the sole provider of electrical services at Wits and if they cannot do the job, the university had other outsourced companies at their disposal.

“If MJL cannot deliver a specific service at a time, Wits can get an alternate provider and vice versa regarding another service provider.”

The workers responded to the lack of materials and previous payment issues with a go-slow, at the beginning of January.

On Friday February 6, they arrived at work to find they had been locked out.

Cresswold continued to refuse to pay them and did not provide a reason, according to Saku.

Two weeks ago they were temporarily suspended.

During a meeting with the Wits Legal Office several days later, were told the process to suspend them had been unfair.

“We [the workers] were in the right … Cresswold said that we were striking, but we weren’t,” said Saku.

Wits Legal Office declined to comment to Wits Vuvuzela for this story.

Dr Shireen Ally of Sociology, an activist with the Wits Workers Solidarity Committee, told Wits Vuvuzela that after the university intervened, Cresswold and the workers reached a verbal commitment that the suspensions would be cancelled and the workers “indicated this was subsequently received in writing”.

However, Saku said they would not return to work until they have been paid.

The workers have returned to Wits a number of times to try and resolve the issue and are “frustrated” with not having been paid.

Additional reporting by Reuven Blingnault.