By Malikhanye Mankayi
The Social Employment Fund (SEF) workers who have been cleaning up Makhanda and fixing potholes for the past year held a mass protest at the offices of the National Arts Festival (NAF) at the Settlers’ Monument on 5 September over what they say is their unfair dismissal from the project.
The NAF manages the interns on fixed-term contracts funded by the SEF, with the first phase of workers hired in June 2022 and a second phase of workers beginning in April 2023. But workers from the first phase say they did not sign any contract that outlined the phases. They told Grocott’s Mail that they thought they would be employed for two years and described the ending of their contracts as an unfair dismissal.
Songezo Ntsendwane, a SEF worker told Grocott’s Mail “We visited the Monument because we were dismissed unfairly. There was no formal notice explaining that our contract will end after 12 months. So we came to ask for our jobs back”.
NAF chief executive officer Monica Newton, NAF CEO says all contracts were clearly for a fixed term. “The project started with its implementation in June 2022, gradually expanding the number of participants to reach 1,500 participants in September/October 2022. The extension, from 1 April to 31 July this year, meant we were able to take on more participants, increasing the numbers to 1,886, even though these participants would only benefit from four months of work unlike others who joined the project. A condition of the extension was that the additional phase should include new participants only so that the project could benefit more people”, Newton said.
But SEF worker, Nomhle Sayama, says this is very unclear because some of the workers initially hired are still working, even though according to NAF, their contracts should have expired.
“We don’t understand how the system works because not all of us from the previous Phase of participants were dismissed. There are still some participants working”, said Sayama. She added that she and her colleagues have not been able to claim unemployment insurance (UIF) and have been sent away when they tried to claim at the Department of Labour.
Newton says the NAF SEF team is working closely with officials at the Makhanda Department of Labour offices to resolve problems that have delayed the processing of UIF claims by former SEF project participants.
She added that “over the next few months, all Phase 1 participants will exit the project and new participants will be brought on board who will work on the project until 31 May 2024” she said, adding that Phase 2 participants will only work for an average of seven months.
During the mass protest, the SEF workers selected ten employees to communicate with SEF managers. They said they were so frustrated about losing their jobs and requested SEF managers to respond quickly, because they hoped not to reach the point where they acted out of poverty and anger.
One of the workers who has mended potholes in the town, Sinazo Toyi, said she was unhappy that some SEF workers seem to have become employed by individual businesses who had been partnering with the SEF project, and wanted to know if they were being paid from SEF funds or the business’ funds.
Holding placards stating “I want my job back” and “Why must we be chased away after cleaning GHT [Makhanda]”, the workers said they would struggle to find other work at this time of year, and that their families were going hungry.
The project manager of the NAF’s SEF project, Hilton Haakonsen, said he had met with the workers’ representatives and “given them the best answers we could give them yesterday”. He promised to find out more information in an attempt to solve their grievances.
The workers have approached the CCMA.