South Africa: 'Our People Cannot Be Treated Like Napkins' - Public Works Programme Challenged in Court

Johannesburg Expanded Public Works Programme workers want to be made permanent

Expanded Public Works Programme workers march to the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development in March. They are asking to be made permanent. Archive photo supplied

The National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (NUPSAW) and more than 1,000 Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) workers in Gauteng are asking the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development to make them permanent employees.

The workers are part of a group of about around 5,000 engaged by the Department in 2014 for jobs such as cleaning schools and security services. The group was initially given three-month contracts and these were repeatedly renewed.

The workers received SMSes at the beginning of March 2020 that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the month. Engagements between NUPSAW and the Department were planned but disrupted by the national lockdown.

NUPSAW and the workers are asking the Labour Court in Johannesburg to halt the termination of their contracts, to allow those offering essential services to keep doing so under lockdown, and ultimately to declare their employment contracts indefinite or permanent.

The respondents - the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development, the MEC and the head of the Department - opposed this on the grounds that the application was not urgent and that the workers had been told repeatedly that their contracts would end. In an answering affidavit, they say the workers had "more than adequate time to challenge the termination of the contracts" and had failed to do so.

The Department says the schools, clinics, and municipalities had been asked to retain the workers' services but "none of the host departments were prepared to take over or absorb the EPWP Participants."

The Provincial Coordinator for the Gauteng EPWP Workers Forum and one of the named applicants in the case, Executive Lungisani Mukwevho, says they have a right to work and are needed in their positions longer term. "Our people cannot be treated like napkins. You give us a job today, then you take it away and put someone else there. We are not recyclable, that's why we want it to be permanent."

Meanwhile the workers say they are struggling to make ends meet. Many of them have applied to the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) for Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grants.

Trevor Ntlatseng of Thembelihle informal settlement in Johannesburg says his application was denied on the basis that he was still registered on the system as working for the Department. He is currently volunteering at the clinic where he used to work as an EPWP worker. "At the moment we are stuck. We're not earning anything. We don't have anything to live on actually."

Mukwevho says some of the workers are also being refused food parcels by municipal councillors during lockdown because they are seen as having jobs. "Now we are vulnerable," he says.

The Labour Court in Johannesburg reserved judgment on the urgent application last Thursday via virtual court proceedings.

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