An ongoing strike outside the Bushkoppies Waste Water Treatment plant near Soweto has placed the Vaal river water supply in danger of being contaminated by millions of litres of sewage.
The protestors had blocked the entrance to the plant yesterday by covering the road with hundreds of rocks over hundreds of metres and dragging trees wrapped with barbed wire into the road, which earned them an interdict from Johannesburg Water (JW).
Bushkoppies processes between 200 and 250 million litres of effluent per day which, once treated, eventually lands up in the Vaal River.
“JW has on numerous occasions met with the contractor and the workers; the company then decided a few weeks ago to terminate the services of the workers,” said Johannesburg Water spokesperson Hilgard Matthews, noting the dispute had been going since at least June.
Nearly 30 ex-employees of Umzinyathi Construction – based in Newcastle and owned by a Sudesen Naicker – are claiming unfair dismissal and exploitive labour practices, and claimed some pipes on the plant had already burst.
Matthews said JW employees were back on site after the interdict was served and as of Wednesday afternoon, there had been no problems he was aware of.
According to former Umzinyathi employee Coleberg Maduna – speaking on behalf of his 29 colleagues and through an interpreter – the strike started last week because Naicker hadn’t paid them.
“Since we started working with the guy, he’s been very negative to us. He is calling us names, he doesn’t want to hire machinery, and he’s using people to dig places where a person is not supposed to dig. We are using our hands, a pick and a shovel. He has money for us to be able to work.
“He owes us a lot of money, back pay, holiday money, and a company that took money from us that Naicker said if we had a problem, the company would talk for us. But when the lawyer was supposed to talk for us, they were against us and for the company,” Maduna said.
“Now we want our money for the entire contact, which was supposed to end in 2018. He says he’s the boss. He claims the money from the client on behalf of the employees but then we don’t get that money,” Maduna claimed.
Naicker said the reason for their dismissal on 22 November was the protestors wanted to be paid “for days they were striking, but there is a no work, no pay policy. They were striking because the community wanted more work so the community blocked access to the job itself.”
He denied the claim the former employees made of working by hand. “False statement. There is no way we could have done the work without machines,” said Naicker.
“We had a disciplinary hearing which they refused to attend and everything was followed according to the labour law, and SEESA handled the disciplinary hearing.”
Maduna claimed they had never had a hearing and Naicker’s representative had thrown their dismissal papers on the ground in front of them.
However, said Naicker, the former employees did eventually receive payment.
“Johannesburg Water gave in and actually paid them, but now I don’t know what they actually want now, because JW has paid them,” said Naicker.
Not so, said Matthews. “They are not on our personnel salary system. All monies that were meant to be paid to the contractor have been paid to him.”
The contract, worth R102 million, entails building a balancing tank which provides a storage volume greater than that of the treatment system which allows a non-uniform flow of waste water to be collected, mixed and pumped forward onto the treatment system at a uniform rate.
“The biggest risk here is a power failure on site, or if staff can’t do the ongoing corrections which are needed on a day to day basis; there is the possibility that we might have sewage spills into the environment which is not only undesirable, but it’s against the law of the country,” Matthews said.
“Now the interdict has been served, the JMPD and SAPS will enforce it. This is a valuable city asset which performs a vital function.”