WORKERS AID: MJL Electrical workers outside the Great Hall before they got in to
the Vice Chancellor’s Town Hall meeting last month. Photo: Sibongile Machika
ELECTRICIANS employed at Wits by MJL Electrical have asked students to join them in solidarity, to pressure Wits management to assist them in finding a solution to problems with their working conditions.
Earlier this year workers complained to the Wits Legal Office that they were poorly paid and accused MJL Electrical owner George Cresswold of deducting money from their salaries for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and pensions but not paying into those funds.
The workers had tried to get help from their union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) without success.
“Numsa does not give us enough support and that is why we need students to help us, we are just electricians, we do not know the law and that makes it easy for Wits to take advantage of us,” said one of the workers, Richard Ndebele.
The workers have not been given assignments since March, nor have they received a letter that they no longer have jobs. “We cannot even claim from UIF because our employer was not paying,” said Ndebele.
“What criteria are you using to hire contractors at Wits? We are questioning because they are not complying with labour laws, they are not paying tax, pension fund and UIF.”
MJL Electrical is a contractor of Wits University and its employees are outsourced workers and not directly employed by the university.
Ndebele said the university promised to work together with the electricians to find a solution, but have not taken any legal actions against Cresswold. “When we demanded answers from George, the uni
versity promised that they will make sure our jobs are safe, now they say this issue does not concern them.”
In their recent letter to Wits community, MJL Electrical workers accuse Wits of failing to insist on fair and legal labour practices by the contractors they hire, “What criteria are you using to hire contractors at Wits? We are questioning because they are not complying with labour laws, they are not paying tax, pension fund and UIF.”
Last month, during the Town Hall meeting, MJL Electrical workers walked into the auditorium and stood at the front of the stage for the duration of the meeting, to protest their plight.
Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said the issue of the MJL workers was not the university’s responsibility, as any attempt to guarantee the jobs of employees of outsourced service providers would set a precedent for workers from other service providers.
Wits University hosted another townhall meeting with the vice chancellor last week to give staff and students the opportunity to raise questions with Wits management.
It wasn’t a comfortable town hall meeting for Wits Vice Chancellor (VC) Professor Adam Habib last week. At the meeting held last Thursday, Habib came under heavy criticism mainly over the university’s stance on Israel and over the issue of unpaid electrical workers.
Rashaad Yusuf Dadoo, BA Law, used the platform of the townhall meeting to question Wits’ apparent lack of a stance on the conflict in the middle East and accused the university of having a political conscious only when it suited them.
Dadoo, who is a member of the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), claimed that the university was quick to stand against xenophobia, in solidarity with Kenyan students, but failed to take up a specific stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I felt the need to bring up the evident hypocrisy shown by the Vice Chancellor Professor Habib with regard to showing equal compassion and solidarity,” Dadoo said.
“I feel Professor Habib should show that compassion equally regardless of who the oppressors are,” he added.
He also claimed that the university had allowed the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) to bring an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier onto campus.
Habib was quick to deny this allegation saying the “soldier” was only a student wearing an IDF shirt.
Another member of the audience accused the VC of allowing racists to speak and mobilise on campus.
Habib, responded by saying that Wits is a place of free ideas where people are free to express their views even if they are not his views or those of the university.
Students took to Twitter after the townhall, to voice their disappointment in the VC’s response:
“APPALLED at the way VC <a href=”https://twitter.com/AdHabb”>@AdHabb</a> treated the <a href=”https://twitter.com/WitsPSC1″>@WitsPSC1</a> as a group of Muslim fundamentalists who don’t stand for freedom of speech,” said Aaisha (@aaishadadipatel).
“@WitsPSC1 was received with such hostility, WHY? Our first question was nothing but respectful,” tweeted Courtney Morgan (@Courtz_RM).
Electrical workers who have gone unpaid through this year staged a silent protest on the steps of the Great Hall before the meeting started. The workers, part of MJL Electrical, then walked into the hall and stood at the front of the stage for the duration of the meeting.
MJL workers have been in dispute with their employer, who has not paid them for over a month, and have taken the matter to court.
Habib addressed the issue of the MJL workers by saying that the university would support them as a friend of the court.
He also said that it was not the university’s responsibility to guarantee the jobs of employees of outsourced service providers as it would set a precedent for workers from other service providers.
SITTING-IN: (Right to left) Olando Ndzayo, Evans Shonhe, Shadrack Baloyi, Samuel Mosia, Hendrik Kqarajoana, Alfredo Zuma, Linneth Masange and Richard Ndebele are amongst the workers employed by MJL Electrical that staged a sit-in at the offices yesterday afternoon because they had not been paid in four weeks. Photo: Dana Da Silva.
Employees of MJL Electrical stage a sit-in to draw out their employer to answer questions after they go unpaid yet again.
Outsourced electrical workers at Wits University staged a sit-in yesterday afternoon to force their employer to account for their lack of pay over a 2-week period.
The workers employed by MJL electrical refused to leave their offices in the Central Block building. “We workers are occupying the office, we are seeking attention from our boss to come answer the questions and tell us exactly what is happening”, said Samuel Mosia, one of the workers.
“We just need our boss’s attention. We’ve been emailing him, calling him but he’s never pitched”, he said.
According to Mosia, the owner of MJL electrical, George Cresswold, told the workers he was having problems with Wits and that he was sorting out paper work with the Wits Property and Infrastructure Management Division (PIMD) and once that was done he would pay his employees. “What I can say is that he’s dodging to pay us, we don’t really know a good reason for doing that,” said Richard Ndebele another worker from MJL electrical.
When contacted by Wits Vuvuzela, Cresswold said that he was unable to comment.
The workers say they spoke directly with Mandla Mdluli at PIMD, and according to him, the University does not owe MJL electrical anything. The workers asked PIMD to intervene by asking for their salaries to be paid and to get another contractor to replace Cresswold’s company.
This is not the first time that MJL workers have had payment issues. Earlier this year, the workers staged a similar sit-in after they went unpaid for 6 weeks.
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.
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.
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.