Further labour unrest feared at Free State prison

Staff at jail threaten to down tools after union leader is suspended for inciting strike

To read this article by senior journalist, Ruth Hopkins,  as first it appeard in The Star, click here

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MANGAUNG Prison, run by security company G4S, is facing more labour unrest as workers threaten to go on strike. The employees claim they will down tools after their vocal union leader, Dan Mbelwane, was suspended on Monday, allegedly for inciting the unlawful strike that took place at the prison last month.

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) does not endorse the planned strike, but it was to serve the prison management with a petition today.

The petition lists many demands, ranging from the lifting of the suspension of Mbelwane and four others, to the dismissal of some directors of the prison. They also want the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to take over the detention centre.

In 2000, G4S signed a contract with the DCS for the construction, maintenance and running of the prison.

The director of human resources at the prison, Stephen Page, called a meeting on Monday in Bloemfontein, where he informed Mbelwane and Popcru officials of the suspension of Mbelwane and four other employees, alleging they had incited violence and labour unrest and had abused sick leave.

Lawrence Msinto, Popcru’s regional secretary, said: “These allegations are baseless, and the suspension isn’t in line with the Labour Relations Act.” If their demands are not met, the employees claim at least 500 warders and vocational and administrative staff will down tools from today.

The warders and management have been embroiled in a drawn-out dispute over the lack of security of warders, racism and salary issues. This tense stand-off came to a head last month, when about half of the staff members called in sick for three consecutive days.

Prison riots broke out because inmates missed meals and were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day as a result of the staff shortage. They burnt three cells and stabbed two guards.

The Labour Court deemed the collective stayaway unprotected in terms of the Labour Relations Act and ordered all employees to return to work. Legally, prison guards deliver essential services and are therefore not allowed to strike.

The disgruntled workers however, view the suspension as the last straw and they are gatvol, according to a warder who does not want to be named. One of their main grievances is the lack of protection for warders in the maximum security prison. Every unarmed warder has to oversee 60 inmates in a prison that is rife with gang violence.

In the petition, 30 incidents of violence against warders are cited, ranging from rape to hostage-taking and stabbings.

According to Popcru, the management didn’t report the incidents to the DCS regional office, as they are required to do by law.

Grace Molatedi, the DCS’s Free State deputy commissioner, said: “All incidents are reported to us. DCS cannot just take over the prison. That is only possible if G4S has not complied with the entire contract.

Labour strikes are, however, subject to financial penalties for G4S, which can run up to millions.”

A year ago, Popcru declared a dispute with G4S after salary negotiations stalled. G4S is refusing to disclose any financial information.

An arbitration decision of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration is expected this month.

* Ruth Hopkins is a journalist for the Wits Justice Project

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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