GroundUp (Cape Town)

South Africa: Man Loses Use of Hand At Work, but Can't Get Compensated

A Zimbabwean man, Farai Chawasema, who lost all use of his hand in an injury at work on 29 November last year, is accusing his employer, Patrick Pieterse, of Pat's Engineering and a medical practitioner, Ajmal Ikram, of Melomed Gatesville Medical Centre, of failing to get him workman's compensation.

Chawasema had only been working for three months for Pat's Engineering, a small metal work business in Plantation Road, Wetton, when he had a terrible accident. He and six co-workers were lifting a huge iron beam manually because there was no fork lift machinery at the work place. They were trying to put it on a pile of beams, but his hand got crushed between two beams in the process. Chawasema has not been paid since 21 December. Last week his employer told him that he does not have money to pay him and instead it is the Workmen's Compensation Fund (WCF) that ought to pay him.

Chawasema is currently living on hand outs from his friends and is devastated because he is no longer able to support his seven year old son, pay rent, or buy food. Some of his friends can no longer support him and he is considering returning to Zimbabwe where he hopes to get help from his family. He is unable to work. He had been working temporarily for Pat's Engineering. A permanent job offer came through for him after the accident but, due to the injury, he was forced to turn it down.

Chawasema says that Pat's Engineering employees also work without protective clothing. He claims the company is not registered and trades instead as LCD Steelwork. The latter is indeed registered with CIPRO (Companies and intellectual Property Registration Office) but we cannot find any evidence that Pat's Engineering is registered. Chawasema also alleges that almost thirty employees who are working at Pat's Engineering are not registered with the Department of Labour and most of them are immigrants. Another immigrant, who works with Chawasema at the same company, confirmed that workers have not signed contracts neither are they registered.

The story of Chawasema's attempt to get workmen's compensation is one of frustration. It appears he has been treated poorly by Patrick Pieterse, owner of Pat's Engineering and Dr Ikram. Their lack of concern was apparent when GroundUp asked them to comment on the matter. When I phoned Dr Ikram for comment, he lost his temper on the phone, refused to answer questions, and told me to "get my facts right". Pieterse sent me an email with a thinly veiled legal threat and has refused to respond to questions. To the extent that this article does not give their point of view, they are solely responsible. Furthermore, despite Chawasema claiming that he personally handed in his claim documents to the Department of Labour, the Department can find no record of Chawasema's claim on its records.

After the accident, Dr Ikram filled out a medical report for Chawasema, which Chawasema gave to his employer was supposed to use to apply for workmen's compensation from the Department of Labour. It is not clear what precisely the employer submitted to the Department of Labour and Pieterse's lack of co-operation with GroundUp means we cannot clarify this.

Chawasema believes that Pieterse conspired with Ikram to give him a fake medical record. He says he discovered this when he went for a check up. He was told to collect his folder at reception. The original medical report accidentally fell from the folder. He made a photocopy and compared it with the copy he was originally given to give his employer to take to the WCF and it was different. GroundUp has a copy of both forms. Chawasema says, "I believe the employer did not provide the workers compensation fund with my documents because when I was injured I did not fill in any forms from the labour department. My suspicions were confirmed when I went to the labour department and was informed that they do not have a claim number for me. I was asked for the medical report and I gave them the one I was given by the doctor. They then declined it saying that one of the sections was not filled in; the section that should state the nature of injury. I then presented the one I photocopied and they accepted it but they said they were going to investigate how I ended up with two different medical reports. They told me I should come back after eight weeks."

Professor Leslie London at the University of Cape Town's School of Public Health and Family Medicine explained that doctors often make mistakes filling out the Workman's Compensation Act forms or are reluctant to complete them in the first place. "The process is onerous and inefficient. Private practice doctors are often unhappy with the timeliness and amount of payment. It is more likely that a doctor made a mistake or didn't want the bother than deliberately prevented a worker from claiming."

Chawasema also said, "My employer said to me that the application should be processed within 14 days after one is injured. If what he was saying is true it means they deliberately delayed the process because I got the medical report from the doctor after 14 days". However, an attorney GroundUp spoke to explained that there is a one year period; there is still time for Pat's Engineering to organise compensation for Chawasema.

In an emailed response, Themba Mdluli, Assistant Director of Communication for the WCF said, "I have checked the record of Mr Farai Chawasema on our system and we don't have any record that shows that the appropriate forms were submitted to report an injury. The Department of Labour has 12 offices in Cape Town. I need to know which office he visited and who he talked to so that I can call them to confirm he visited the labour offices."

The attorney we spoke to explained that even if Chawasema wasn't registered with the Department of Labour, he is entitled to receive compensation from the fund, but the company would have acted unlawfully by not registering him and the Department of Labour can litigate against the company.

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