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Organising the unorganised

An advice centre in Pretoria is doing its best to help workers with their labour problems...

I have always wondered what was happening inside number 25 Van Der Walt Street, Pretoria. Six days a week, Monday to Saturday, there are long queues of people waiting outside. "What are these people doing here?" I asked myself. "Are they looking for a job? Or are they queuing for their new dompas?".

One day, I decided to steal a few minutes from my busy schedule to find out. When I walked up the stairs to the first floor, my eyes met with those of many people standing in a very long queue. There was not a murmur. Everyone was quiet — dead silent!

But their faces told many stories — stories of anger, hopelessness, hunger and hardship. At the entrance to Room 13, there was a big board with the words: Workers' Aid Centre (WAC) — the answer to my question.


I sat down next to an old man. He introduced himself as Solomon Ntlatleng, from Kwa-Mhlanga in Kwa- Ndebele. I asked him what he was doing at the centre. "I came here because I have a big problem with my boss," he said. "I have worked for the Laurens family in Pretoria for more than five years. I stayed in their backyard. And I did not belong to any union.

"Until a few weeks ago, I had a good relationship with my boss. I used to have some booze with him. But all these things did not mean that he paid me well — I earned only R100.00 a month. I was overworked — I worked from six o1 clock in the morning until five o' clock in the evening. I also worked as their gardener at weekends."

"I was surprised when last week, after we had had some drinks together, he told me that I was drunk during working hours and I was fired from work for "misconduct". I thought he was just joking — but as he insisted, I realised that he meant business. He did not give me anything."

The heart-broken Ntate Ntlatleng went to COSATU offices to ask for help. "COSATU referred me to this office. I have explained my problem to WAC workers and I hope they will help me," he said.


Another person waiting in the long queue was Ma Dinah Khoza who lives in Mamelodi. Ma Dinah worked as a cleaner for a company called Pointers1 Cleaners in Pretoria. She worked well for the company until she went on unpaid maternity leave for three months — this was in July. She only earned R365.00 per month.

"When I came back in October, I was told to hold on for a while. And after some weeks holding on, I was told that on the month I went on leave, the company had already issued a notice to me — informing me of the termination of my employment. I told them that the notice did not reach me. But they said that that was final and they did not even give me my wages.

"My next door neighbour told me about the Workers' Aid Centre — and so I came today to seek help. This matter is about to be taken to the industrial Court — where the organisation will be challenging the management I worked for."


It seemed like the WAC really had a lot of work to do. Mandla Skhosana works at the advice office. He told me a bit about its history.

The WAC was formed in May 1985 by community organisations and trade unions around Pretoria. After six months of training, the WAC opened its doors to the public on 2 January 1986.

On opening day it was clear that many workers had been sitting with unsolved problems — some new, and others very old. "When they heard about our offices, they streamed in," says Mandla.

But the WAC only worked for six months that year. On 12 June 1986, after the government declared the State of Emergency, Mandia was detained for more than three months. The security forces took away the WAC's documents, equipment — and even their furniture. Despite these setbacks, the WAC managed to carry on its work and has achieved more than it hoped for. In 1989, it assisted 2 017 people, while this year it helped 3 014 people during the first nine months alone!


The main part of the WAC's work is with people who are not organised in trade unions. "When we started, we realised that trade unions in Pretoria were not strong," says Mandia. "There was a large army of workers who did not join them. So one of WAC's tasks was to recruit workers into trade unions. But at the same time, we made it clear that the WAC was not going to disturb union organisers in their work of servicing their existing members.

"We also found that one of the reasons that workers did not join trade unions was because they did not understand the need for worker unity. Many did not even know about the minimum rights they have under labour law. This gave the bosses more powers over them. The bosses could fire workers without a good cause and get away with it," adds Mandia. "So another of our tasks was to educate workers about their rights."

Another part of the WAC's work is organising training workshops for newly formed advice centres, trade unions and community organisations. This year, they helped to give birth to the Tholulwazi Advice Centre at Kwaggafontein Industrial Park in Kwa- Ndebele. And requests are flooding in from advice centres in other parts of the Transvaal.


Mandia told us about the steps the WAC follow when they represent the workers. He said that after a worker brings his problems to them — an unfair dismissal for example — they write a letter to the former employers telling them that their action was incorrect and unfair. "We demand that the worker be reinstated. And we follow up the letter with phone calls, asking the company for their response.

"If we are not satisfied with the bosses' response, we write them another letter informing them that we have declared a *deadlock. From there, we take the matter to the industrial Council or the

Department of Manpower. If the bosses still reject our demand at this level, we take the matter to the highest body, the Industrial Court. This is where we debate the case and finally, bury it."

I then asked Mandla how he and the other para-legal advisors feel when they have to go to the Industrial Court and argue with the professional lawyers who work for the bosses. I could not imagine myself challenging that type of lawyer. "Although we are tense before entering the court room, we are confident. This enables us to win many cases, and because of this, many of the people who seek advice trust us."

The people I spoke to had faith in the WAC. They believed that the WAC would be able to help them with their problems. "But," I wondered, "do the WAC have problems of their own that they need to solve?"

"We have got lots of problems," said Mandla. "Our main problem is a lack of funds. We do not charge a single cent for our work and so we rely totally on money that we get from overseas countries."

I asked Mandla how he sees the future for advice centres. He said thoughtfully: "We think that even In a post-apartheid South Africa, advice centres will have a part to piay."


Industrial Court — decisions about labour disputes or disagreements are made at the industrial Court

declare a deadlock — a deadlock is delcared when two people cannot reach agreement

Industrial Council — when two people or groups have a labour dispute or disagreement, the Industrial Council tries to find things they both agree on


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