Oak Valley: employers and employees argue over court jurisdiction

Workers want their plea for better housing heard in the Equality Court

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Photo of judge in court
Judge Owen Rogers heard arguments about jurisdiction in the Oak Valley case. Photo: Tariro Washinyira

Representatives of employees of the Oak Valley Farm Estate and of the estate management argued on Tuesday about where the workers’ case against their employer should be heard - in the Equality Court or the Labour Court.

The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), on behalf of the workers, is arguing in the Cape High Court, sitting as the Equality Court, that this is the right court to hear the case. Oak Valley on the other hand wants the case heard in the Labour Court.

About 40 farm workers are represented by CSAAWU. The workers want the Equality Court to investigate their housing conditions and the single-sex hostels they are living in on the farm.

Apart from Oak Valley, the other respondents in the case are Boland Labour, a labour broking company employing some of the workers on behalf of the farm, and soft-fruit suppliers and exporters Two-a-Day Group and Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, whose shareholders include the owners of Oak Valley.

On 21 August, Judge Owen Rogers ordered both parties to make submissions by 10 September as to why the case should be heard in the Equality Court.

On Tuesday Judge Rogers asked Henk Smith, who is representing the farm workers, his view on jurisdiction and appropriateness of the forum.

Smith said, “This case is about racism, dignity, housing conditions and the single-sex hostels the workers are living in on the farm.” He said an architect had gone to inspect the hostels on 3 September as agreed in the last court session. “He experienced unreasonable conditions imposed by Oak Valley.”

Smith said the workers had a right not to be separated from their families. He also said that Oak Valley discriminated against black workers from the Eastern Cape.

But counsel for Oak Valley, Bernice Erasmus, said the Equality Court had no jurisdiction.

Erasmus said that the matter would be suitable to be heard at the Labour Court in consultation with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). If agreement is not reached a certificate of non-resolution would then be issued.

She said it was not a constitutional duty for Oak Valley to provide accommodation or family housing. She said the people who lived on the farm were those with ESTA (Extension of Security of Tenure Act) rights and Oak Valley management. The workers with ESTA rights had been living on the farm for generations. Employment alone did not give workers rights to accommodation on the farm, she said.

Erasmus said about half the permanent workforce lived in the township and some of them had been with the company much longer than the applicants in the case.

“Providing accommodation to the applicants will also create a situation where everyone else who is living off the farm would say they are entitled to accommodation by virtue of being permanent employees,” she said.

A date for a jurisdiction hearing will be determined by the court and a new judge will be appointed to hear the matter.

TOPICS:  Farming Housing Labour Labour unions

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