TOBACCO GIANT’S WORKERS’ MENTAL SMOKE HEALTH GOES UP IN
After being hijacked several times, traumatised employees are having to cope on their own, writes Steve Kretzmann
Repeatedly British hijacked sales representatives of American Tobacco SA (BAT SA) say they are suffering with severe anxiety and cumulative trauma, but the tobacco giant is allegedly flouting health and compensation regulations. This has apparently left employees who’ve developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) having to deal with crippling medical costs on their own.
“I’d scream so loudly in my sleep I’d wake my wife. I’d wake up screaming for help ... It still happens,” said former sales rep Bradley Hendricks, who was hijacked 14 times during his almost four years on the road delivering BAT SA products to retailers in Cape Town.
“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD on three or four occasions,” said Hendricks.
Despite these diagnoses, Hendricks – who said he resigned from the company last year when he faced a disciplinary inquiry after making a mistake that he believes can be attributed to PTSD – claims he was only ever given three days off.
There is also no record of compensation claims lodged for him at the Compensation Fund office in Cape Town.
In addition, none of the hijackings and armed robberies he was subjected to appears to have been lodged as incidents with the compensation commissioner. The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida) compels a company to do so within seven days.
In 2015, then spokesperson for BAT SA, Tabby Tsengiwe, was quoted by Times LIVE as saying there were 1 412 hijackings of BAT SA delivery vehicles per year.
BAT SA declined to provide the latest figures, but City Press has records of 53 BAT SA-related cases of hijacking, robbery or armed robbery verified by SA Police Service provincial spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel André Traut.
The cases, involving nine sales reps, occurred in Cape Town between November 2012 and September 2016.
Of the 53 cases, 38 are accompanied by the ID numbers of the seven BAT SA employees listed as complainants.
City Press interviewed four of these employees, three of whom confirmed having been diagnosed with PTSD.
The fourth, Aqeel Bingham, said he was never able to make it to psychologist’s appointments as these were scheduled for him in the late afternoon, when he would get stuck in peak traffic. Consequently, Bingham was never diagnosed.
Of those 38 cases, only one – related to an assault injury – was recorded with the provincial Compensation Fund office.
BAT SA corporate affairs manager Mandlakazi Sigcawu said: “BAT SA always endeavours to report all cases where PTSD was diagnosed, in line with the department of labour’s requirements.” But the records do not bear this out. Sales rep George Taylor, who provided City Press with copies of his psychiatrist’s PTSD diagnoses, said management was unsympathetic and unhelpful.
Another rep, who asked not to be named, said complaining about feeling anxious or traumatised saw people labelled as “lazy and incompetent”. “They make you feel as if [the hijacking] was your fault.” The reps said in order to receive counselling, they needed to lodge a request with their line manager, who would contact the Independent Counselling and Advisory Services (Icas) contracted by BAT SA.
Icas would then organise a psychologist’s appointment.
The reps said it could take up to two weeks before they got to see a psychologist and they were expected to carry on working their usual routes in the meantime.
Both Taylor and his colleague said they had been booked off work for three months owing to PTSD, with the colleague having been hospitalised on two occasions, once for a 21-day stretch.
Their salaries were paid in full during this period and their medical expenses are to be reimbursed by BAT SA.
That said, PTSD could take years to treat and could recur, said psychiatrist Imthiaz Hoosen.
Consequently, for Hendricks, Bingham or any other rep who resigns, the lack of a claim at the Compensation Fund means they stand to pay for treatment out their own pocket, with no possibility of reimbursement.
“The cost of treatment can escalate quickly,” said Hoosen, as it involved a psychologist, psychiatrist and medication.
Costs could “easily” run into tens of thousands of rands, even over R100 000, depending on the severity of the condition.
Employees can report incidents to the Compensation Commission themselves, but it has to be done within 12 months of the incident. The BAT SA reps claim they had no knowledge they could do so.
Despite BAT SA having publicly acknowledged the extent of hijackings, the reps said interaction with health and safety representatives was either nonexistent or superficial, and training on avoiding or dealing with hijackings was superficial.
Asked what BAT SA had done to increase safety for sales reps, Sigcawu stated they were “constantly working in conjunction with law enforcement to mitigate the risk of hijacking for our employees”.
However, she said no detail on security measures implemented to reduce hijackings could be provided because making them public would “likely put our employees at further risk”.
Taylor said provisions had been made for them to be escorted by security guards, but they never knew whether they would have an escort or not.
Additionally, two hijackings took place outside a police station while the rep was waiting for a security escort to arrive. One was outside the Manenberg police station while the other was in Kraaifontein.
Hendricks, who said he was at one point hijacked 11 times in nine months, said he was never escorted by security.
Taylor said they requested BAT SA to remove identifying yellow strips from their vehicles in 2013, but “it took them until November last year to do that”.
Apart from the potential financial impact the lack of reporting to the Compensation Fund may have on employees subjected to life-threatening trauma, it also means BAT SA is underpaying their Compensation Fund submissions.
The fund acts as insurance, exempting employers from being sued for occupational injuries or diseases, but employers are obliged to contribute submissions calculated on their salaries bill, the frequency of reported workplace incidents and inherent danger of the industry.
City Press could not establish BAT SA’s liability to the Compensation Fund if all hijackings were reported, but, with a self-reported monthly salary bill of R98.4 million, the additional premiums could be significant.
Ashraf Ryklief, director of the Industrial Health Resource Group within the University of Cape Town School of Public Health and Family Medicine, said underreporting to the compensation fund also pushed the financial burden for occupational injuries and diseases to the public health sector or to the individual worker and medical aid schemes.
Labour department spokesperson Teboho Thejane said if employers were not reporting accidents and occupational injuries, the inspectorate would investigate.
Thejane said there was provision for a financial penalty “based on the gravity of the discretion”.
According to Sigcawu, BAT SA reports hijackings that trigger a diagnosis of PTSD, as well as hijackings where physical injuries were sustained.
“BAT assists with access to support for those employees exposed to trauma.
“Social support is provided immediately following exposure to any trauma. Counselling and treatment commence 48 hours after an incident.
“We have a professional service provider in Icas that provides trauma counselling. If treatment is required, based on the recommendations by trauma counsellors, employees are referred to a psychiatrist secured by BAT SA’s occupational health practitioner. This ensures we have acceptable and consistent standards in dealing with this issue.
“BAT SA uses several proactive protection measures of which our reps are not always privy to, all for their safety and protection.
“The protection of our employees is important to us. BAT SA’s protection measures and decisions are based on wellcalculated and analysed security risks. BAT SA continuously reviews its security measures or trade practices.”