NUM’s involvement in a health and safety compliance dispute has been found by the SA labour court to be irresponsible and unreasonable.

HOW is an employer to respond when workers effectively hold a mine to ransom?

In the case of PMG Mining’s Bishop Mine operations near Postmasburg in SA Northern Cape province, the refusal by some 16 truck drivers to take a test mandated by the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) could have seen the entire mining enterprise closed down. When all but two steadfastly ignored management’s instruction to comply with the legislation, they appeared before a disciplinary inquiry and were later dismissed for gross insubordination and for failing to obey a “reasonable and lawful instruction”.

The sacked workers then took their case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation & Arbitration. When the arbitrator upheld their dismissals, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), acting on behalf of the sacked truck drivers, asked the labour court to review the award. Judgment in that matter was handed down at the end of last year.

The “Dover test”, compulsory for all operators of trackless mobile machinery, checks factors relating to colour, sound and foot coordination as well as concentration and attention. But the mines’ truck drivers, informed of the planned testing at a meeting on 6 April 2016, demanded a guarantee that their jobs – including salaries and benefits – would be safe, regardless of whether or not they passed the Dover Test. Only then would they agree to be tested.

Management refused the guarantee, saying the department of mineral resources had instructed that the drivers had to comply with the legislation or they would not be declared competent to operate the new machines. The staff were told that they should all pass, since they were experienced drivers, and that if anyone did not, “there would be consultation” with the human resources department on a way forward.

This was not acceptable to the drivers, who broke up the meeting and refused to sign acknowledgement of receipt of the written instruction that they had to take the test on the stipulated days.

The arbitrator found that while a lawful and valid instruction had been given to the drivers so that the mine could comply with safety legislation, all but two refused to obey this instruction. He also found that “the employees held the employer to ransom” by their refusal, jeopardizing not only their own jobs, but also the jobs of all the workers at the mine. This was because their refusal could have led to the department of mineral resources closing down the mine “due to non-compliance with safety regulations”.

At the labour court the judge, Connie Prinsloo, considered the grounds for review put forward by the union and found they had no merit.

Her final comments on the case were particularly significant. She said the mine operated under the MHSA and was supervised by the department which had issued a notice to halt mining operations because the trucks then in use did not comply with the law. When the mine bought a new fleet of trucks to be compliant, all the operators had to be declared competent and the first step was to pass the Dover test.

The drivers refused to take the test, but the “worst part” of it, said the judge, was that the union became involved in the matter and backed the drivers’ insistence on management guaranteeing job security. The union’s conduct was irresponsible and unreasonable, since it never disputed that the employer had to comply with the safety legislation.

“In my view the union has a lot to answer (for) as the dismissal could have been avoided had they acted … reasonably and with the interests of the workers in mind.” Instead, the union’s attitude put the employer at risk and jeopardized the workers’ future employment.

The resulting dismissal of the drivers was “a sad and unfortunate state of affairs, for which the union and the employees are to be blamed,” the judge said.

  • Financial Mail, 10 January 2019