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Striking Agni Steels workers left in limbo after Labour Court dismisses application with costs

By Afikile Lugunya - Jan 16, 2018
Striking Agni Steels workers left in limbo after Labour Court dismisses application with costs

Around 140 disgruntled workers from steel-maker, Agni Steels, which is based at the Coega IDZ, in Port Elizabeth, were on Tuesday left in limbo after the Labour Court ruled against them in their dispute with their employer and dismissed their application with costs.

To make matters worse, their legal representative was not present for the judgement, so nobody was available to explain to them what had happened and what it all meant.

He did arrive some time later to address the workers.

The workers, who again held a picket in front of the Port Elizabeth High Court, downed tools in December over alleged abuse and wage disagreements.

The workers, who are aligned with the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (LIMUSA), told RNEWS about a week or so ago, that while they had applied for a protected strike over the alleged abuses, they were surprised when the company locked them out and the even went ahead to hire new workers to replace them.

Bonginkosi Zulu, who is the National Legal officer for LIMUSA, represented the workers and argued in court that workers must be allowed to return to their workstations immediately because they are not protesting, but were forcefully locked out by the employer.

According to Zulu, the employer "demanded" LIMUSA members co-sign a wage agreement that was concluded by the company and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which is a minority trade union at the company.

LIMUSA claims to have over 140 members in the plant compared to NUMSA's 13.

After they refused to sign, they gave notice that they intended to hold a strike, but were shocked that even before they began the strike, they were locked out.

Application

In an application launched on the 5th of January, the workers sought to interdict Agni Steels against employing replacement workers during the period of the apparent lockout.

Meanwhile, through its lawyers, Agni Steels opposed the application stating that it conceded that the lockout notice as delivered by email on 8 December was defective in that it did not comply with the formal prerequisites contained in Section 64 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) No.66 of 1995.

The court heard that a strike notice was issued on 27 September for 2 October and amemded to 4 October. Litigation ensued as stated and picketing rules were agreed upon between the workers and the company on 8 December. The workers failed to return to their posts after tea break on the day, that was when a notice of a lockout was given.

A notice of motion and draft order were filed by the applicants on 27 December and the application was filed on the 4th of January before a consent order was made on the 5th of January for the matter to be heard on the 15th and 16th of January.

The workers contended that the lockout was offesnive as the company was the aggressor, thus causing Section 76(1)(b) to kick in, which prevents the company from employing 'scab labour'.

Agni Steels, however, argued that the locakout did not go against Section 76 of the LRA as it was defensive, hence the above Section could not kick in as the lockout notice was defective.

The workers argued that they did not return after tea because they had been locked out while the company argued that failure to return consituted a protected strike.

Judgement 

In his judgement, Judge AJ Potgieter could not accept the arguement by the workers that they could not return to their posts after tea because they had been locked out because the notice for a lockout was only issued some 46 minutes after the workers failed to return.

"It is clear to my mind that their failure to return could not have been because of the 'lockout' notice," he said.

He also found that the workers, refused to return to work after tea because they felt the employer had failed to accept their demands and they also had refused to accept the employer's demands.

Judge Potgieter found that because picketing rules had been agreed early on the same day, it is probable that it was because of the workers' strike action.

He said that he found that the workers failed to show that the lockout was offensive as the probabilities do not favour them, hence the company's subsequent actions do not go against Section 76(1)(b) as claimed by the workers.

Thus, Judge Potgieter dismissed the workers' application with costs.