NUM’S WRONG TURN
The union’s involvement in a health and safety compliance dispute has been found by the 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, about 16 truck drivers’ refusal to take a test mandated under the Mine Health & Safety Act could have resulted in the entire mining enterprise being closed down.
When all but two steadfastly ignored management’s instruction to comply with the law, they appeared before a disciplinary inquiry and were later dismissed for gross insubordination and 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 decision.
That judgment was handed down at the end of last year.
The “Dover test” — compulsory for all operators of trackless mobile machinery — checks factors such as sound and foot co-ordination, as well as operators’ concentration and attention.
But the mine’s truck drivers, informed of the planned testing at a meeting on April 6 2016, demanded a guarantee that their jobs — including salaries and benefits — would be safe, regardless of whether they passed the Dover test. Only then would they agree to be tested.
Management refused the guarmineral antee, saying the department of mineral resources had instructed that drivers must comply with the legislation or not be declared competent to operate new trucks, which management had brought in to ensure legal compliance. The staff were told they should all pass, as 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 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 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, jeopardising not only their own jobs, but also the jobs of all the workers at the mine.
This was because their refusal could have led the department of resources to close the mine “due to noncompliance with safety regulations”.
Driving the point home
At the labour court, 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 Mine Health & Safety Act and was supervised by the department, which had issued a notice to halt mining operations because the trucks 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, which the drivers refused to take.
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, as 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 [it] acted … reasonably and with the interests of the workers in mind,” the judge said. Instead, the union’s attitude put the employer at risk and jeopardised 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”, Prinsloo said.
The union never disputed that the employer had to comply with the safety legislation