Nearly 150 employees at the refinery in Montague Gardens say they have not been paid since the beginning of the lockdown.
Dressed in masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), around 50 of the disgruntled workers braved the cold last Thursday, holding a peaceful demonstration against their company.
They work for SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian-based engineering company. SNC is subcontracted by Astron Energy, an energy company that supplies petroleum products in South Africa.
The employees spoke to Tabletalk on condition we didn’t use their names because they feared being targeted by the company. Some said they had alreadybbeen targeted for speaking out.
Brian*, who lives in Dunoon, is a welder and he said that he had signed a contract with SNC in February this year.
“In March, because of the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown announced by the president, we were told that the company would close and it closed at the end of March. It was later announced that employees would get help through the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) relief fund by the government. We enquired with SNC and we were told that the company had applied but they applied late for the grant but that money was coming,” he said.
The workers said there were various other companies subcontracted under Astron Energy and, to their knowledge, employees of those companies had been paid.
Amos*, who also lives in Dunoon, questioned why other companies had applied for UIF and temporary employer/employee relief scheme (TERS) grants early while SNC had applied late.
“We get paid per fortnight and we were paid at the end of March. We thought going forward we would get paid at least a percentage of our fortnightly wages, but nothing yet. It’s been two months now and we don’t have anything in our bank accounts,” he said.
Some employees claim that when the lockdown was announced and that their company would close as a result, they decided to go to their families in the Eastern Cape. But say they were called by SNC to come back to Cape Town a few weeks later.
Shaun* said that after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would be moving to Level 4 of the lockdown, he received a call from the HR department at SNC telling him that he would have a job when he got back to Cape Town.
“I left the Eastern Cape because I thought I was going to resume work here. When I got back, I was told to wait for an SMS telling me to come back to work. I still haven’t received that SMS, and right now we’re struggling to put food on the table. We also fear that our time at the company might be up. They see us as troublemakers and that is why we might not be called back. But we want the money that is owed to us,” he said.
SNC-Lavalin spokeswoman, Lauryn Joseph, said that only one third of their workforce had been approved to go back to work when the lockdown stages were eased in order to protect all workers on the project site and anyone that they might come into contact with.
“When government announced that financial aid was being made available to lessen the burden on companies and individuals, SNC-Lavalin immediately attempted to make an application to secure UIF/TERS funds for our employees, but due to a break in the fibre connectivity at the Department of Employment and Labour (DoL) their online platform was not available,” she said.
Ms Joseph said SNC-Lavalin had appointed a consultant company, Beraca Accountants and Auditors, to handle the UIF/TERS claim on behalf of their employees.
Managing partner at Beraca Accountants and Auditors, Coen Stokes, said they had applied for TERS.
“We are awaiting the outcome of these engagements with the Department of Labour and/or UIF. In the past few weeks, we found out that SNC-Lavalin’s UIF registration profile was created by an unknown third party. During this period, SNC-Lavalin endeavoured to obtain access to the profile to submit the TERS application, with no success. During the last week, we were also engaging with the call centre (at the DoL) to reset the password and escalated this to the IT department, with no success. The individual that created the profile is not known to the SNC-Lavalin and/or their representatives,” said Mr Stokes.
Vice president of SNC-Lavalin in sub-Saharan Africa, Stuart Kent, said: “The welfare of our employees is of paramount importance to us and in the midst of Covid-19 that includes taking all measures available to us to keep our employees safe, and also to ease the financial burden.”
On Friday last week, Tabletalk asked the Department of Labour questions regarding SNC-Lavalin’s UIF claim. On Monday they said they would respond but didn’t reply by the time this issue went to print.