Robertson abattoir workers hope to head back to Labour Court

Labour Appeal Court to hand down decision within weeks

Photo of people in court

Xolani Mfengu, a former worker at the Robertson Abattoir, sits amongst other dismissed workers inside the Labour Court during an appeal to get their case reinstated. The court was so full that numerous people had to sit on the floor. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

By Ashleigh Furlong

24 May 2016

The Robertson Abattoir workers who lost their jobs in 2010 will have to wait a little longer to find out if their case will go back to the Labour Court.

The workers lost their unfair dismissal case last year but have appealed to the Labour Appeal Court.

Today the the small courtroom was packed with workers, their children and supporters, who had travelled all the way from Robertson for the case. The judgement was set aside but is expected to be handed down in the next few weeks.

The workers claim that they were dismissed in a lockout on 30 November 2010 after refusing to slaughter 850 animals a day when their contracts stipulated 600. They also claim that they often had to work 18 hour days.

Robertson Abattoir on the other hand, claim that 30 workers were dismissed in disciplinary proceedings on 1 December 2010 for “insubordination” and the other 9 were dismissed on 23 December 2010 for “absenteeism”. The abattoir claims that there was never any “demand” for 850 animals to be slaughtered, but there were “ongoing negotiations”.

The workers, who are members of the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union (Csaawu), are represented in court by the Socio Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). Csaawu’s deputy general secretary Karel Swart said that the case had dragged on but that he thought it was “winnable” and that the court action was giving poor people an opportunity to state their case.

Outside the court Jan Majoor, one of the former abattoir workers, described how his dismissal in 2010 had affected him and his family.

“Sometimes there was no food on the table,” he said, explaining that he did part time jobs for three months until he was able to find permanent work. Majoor had worked at the abattoir for a year and six months before he was dismissed.

Xolani Mfengu, who worked at the abattoir for 16 years, said that he is happy about the way the appeal went. He said that after he was dismissed he worked two days a week on a farm, until he managed to secure a job last year.

Another former abattoir worker, Godfrey Twala, said that after he was dismissed his children went hungry. He said that he was still without work and his wife had to support his family. After listening to the appeal today he said that he feels “much better”—a feeling that was echoed by other workers.

Last year the judge found that the workers could not prove that they had been dismissed on the day that they argued they were, that they had not been locked out of the abattoir in an attempt to compel them to agree to slaughter more animals, and that they had not been dismissed because they had refused to work under certain conditions. Judge Anton Steenkamp granted Robertson Abattoir an “absolution from the instance” meaning that the owner of Robertson Abattoir did not have to appear before the court to explain why the workers had been dismissed.

The three judges in today’s appeal were Judges Dennis Davis, John Murphy and Cagney Musi. The judges said in order for the matter to be sent back to the Labour Court the workers had to prove that they had been dismissed and that there was “a credible possibility” that they had been dismissed for refusing to comply with the demand that they must slaughter 850 animals.

In court Judge Davis asked the abattoir’s counsel, Hanri Loots, why there was not a “credible possibility” that the workers had been dismissed for refusing to go beyond contractual obligations. If the workers had indeed been dismissed as they said, and without conciliation, it “would have been automatically unfair”, Judge Davis said.

Judge Davis appeared to get increasingly frustrated by Loots and at one point said, “I don’t know what you are saying”.

The judges all wanted to know why the workers were dismissed, once even asking in frustrated unison, “Why did you dismiss them?”

Judge Musi said to Loots that the abattoir must “just prove the real reason for dismissal”.

Loots argued that the date of the dismissal was important as they were arguing that there was no lockout dismissal and that the dismissal followed disciplinary proceedings that had been “rendered irrelevant” when the case was in the Labour Court.

“If an employee says ‘I’ve been dismissed’, it doesn’t matter what date,” Judge Davis said.

He said that because the abattoir’s reason for the dismissal differed from the workers’, the abattoir must testify why the worker’s account was incorrect. “[You] can’t simply walk out the room,” he said.

Timeline of the case

23 November – Final written warnings were issued to 30 of the workers.

25 November 2010 – Notices issued to 30 of the workers to attend disciplinary hearing on 30 November 2010. Dispute over who received these notices.

29 November 2010 – Workers told to come to work at 10 am the following day to attend disciplinary hearing.

30 November 2010 – Workers arrived at 7 am but gates were locked. Non-union members were later allowed in.

1 December – Outcome of disciplinary hearing was dismissal (in absentia as the employees did not attend the hearing) for 30 employees. Other nine employees were given notices to attend a disciplinary hearing on 22 December 2010. They were dismissed formally on 23 December 2010.

6 December 2010 – Urgent application to force Robertson Abattoir to re-admit workers to abattoir in Labour Court in Cape Town.

6 December 2010 – Interim application granted and workers allowed back onto premises but not allowed to work.

17 December 2010 – Csaawu withdrew Labour Court application.

January 2011 – Csaawu lodged complaint with Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

11 February 2011 – CCMA referred matter back to Labour Court.

23 March 2015 – Judgement handed down in Labour Court by Judge Anton Steenkamp, Robertson Abattoir granted absolution.

18 August 2015 – Csaawu’s leave to appeal granted by Labour Appeal Court.

24 May 2016 – Appeal heard in Labour Appeal Court.