Is Unisa avoiding the new Labour law to ‘save costs’?

While the University of South Africa (Unisa) decides on how to deal with staff contracts affected by the new Labour Relations Amendment Act, the jobs of an estimated 2 000 staff members hang in the balance and students wait to see if their studies will be affected.

But the Academic and Professional Staff Association (Apsa) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) believe the university, which has about 400 000 students, is avoiding the law and looking for ways to fire staff.

“Last year we were on a job agency’s contract, but from January Unisa put us on a Unisa contract for three months. We haven’t received new contracts and I am just sitting at home waiting for someone to call me,” a staff member in the print production department at Unisa told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of negative repercussions from Unisa.

“I was expecting to be made permanent now I don’t know how the university is going to resolve this.”

The Act came into effect on January 1 and affects workers employed by labour brokers or those employed on fixed term contracts, but only applies to those earning below R205 433.30 a year. The act aims to protect employees who do a permanent job but have been hired on a temporary basis and therefore do not get benefits and protection like permanent employees do.

It forces companies to justify fixing the length of an employee’s contract. One example of a justifiable reason is employing someone to fill in for an employee who has taken maternity leave. If an employer can’t justify fixing the length of a contract, the act says that that employee must be made permanent.

Labour law expert, Tony Healy, said the act aimed to “stop the abuse of temporary employment contracts”. Apart from getting out of paying for employee benefits, Healy said it also prevented the “employment at will” practice.  “Now, an employer can’t take you on and let you go at his will and just circumvent dismissal practices.”

But the print production employee the M&G spoke to said the work he does at the distance education university is very much permanent and can’t afford to be compromised. “We have to be at work because we are in charge of printing things like study guides, feedback on assignments, student letters, every communication there is between students and the university.”

He is also a student at Unisa and said, so far, his studies have not been affected.

Students affected
But Apsa’s general secretary, Boitumelo Senokoane, says Unisa is “avoiding the law” and the students have already been affected. “About 2 000 staff have been affected, academic and administrative staff. What’s going to happen now? You can’t argue that the person who does this job is temporary, the function is permanent. Unisa is an ongoing machine. Students have to get their tutorials from lecturers, study materials and assignments. In the Newcastle region there are no tutorials happening.”

In a press release this week, the EFF at Unisa in Tshwane said it “notes with grave dismay the laying down, dismissal and sporadic ‘retrenchments’ of workers”. It said Unisa was seeking to “avoid employing [workers] permanently and to cut down costs” and university management was “reluctant to come to an amicable solution with labour and is hell-bent on dismissing workers unfairly”. It also said the disruption has already had a “harsh impact” on students.

“There is currently a case in the college of Law where the college has employed student workers, only to dismiss them on their first day of reporting for duty … and it becomes clearer as students approach us that this injustice is happening at a large scale. We have listened to each case, even to those student workers who have been working in those colleges for the previous year, who are now subjected to such dismissals.”

“We condemn these actions and we view this exercise not as an attempt by the institution to comply with the law but rather an act of disadvantaging the people of the benefits of the ground breaking amendments.”

‘No dismissals’
But Unisa’s spokesperson, Martin Ramotshela, said “no employees of the university were dismissed as a result of the act”.

“The university… is currently assessing all fixed-term contracts affected by the new amendments in order to establish whether they meet the justifiable reasons in terms of the new legislation or whether a different determination is necessary in respect of some of these contracts,” he said.

“Furthermore, our Management Committee, following an external legal opinion, has introduced additional justifiable reasons over and above what the act prescribes, in order to ensure that the process is as inclusive as possible and that no fixed-term employee is inadvertently overlooked.”

He said once the process has been completed, the affected employees would be informed of the outcome through the existing channels of internal communication.

“Of course, we will endeavour to complete the process in the shortest time possible.” He also said Unisa has platforms to engage with organised labour including the Unisa Bargaining Forum where parties should air their grievances for discussion and possible resolution.  “It is neither policy nor practice for the university to engage the recognised unions through the media.”