Grooms and stable owners head to CCMA

Struggling racing industry beset with labour conflict

14 October 2020 - 12:18
By Mkhuseli Sizani
Former Dippin Blu Racing grooms in Port Elizabeth during a meeting outside the Fairview informal settlement where most of them live.
Image: Mkhuseli Sizani/GroundUp Former Dippin Blu Racing grooms in Port Elizabeth during a meeting outside the Fairview informal settlement where most of them live.

The outcome of a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) hearing on Friday could determine whether dozens of former Dippin Blu Racing horse groomers in Port Elizabeth can claim unemployment benefits.

On September 17, more than 150 protesting workers and people from the surrounding community stormed the stables at Dippin Blue and released the horses. What happened then is disputed, but one horse died and 20 were injured. One person was arrested and it appears at least two people were injured by gunshots.

The conflict stemmed from an incident in February when a worker injured a horse. The stable owner said the worker stabbed the horse in the neck. The grooms dispute this, saying the worker mistakenly cut a horse’s ear during grooming.

The workers said they pleaded with the owner not to fire their colleague “because that mistake could happen to all of us”. In the ensuring dispute, the worker and 39 others were fired.

The group took the matter to the CCMA in March. They then decided to drop the complaint so they could apply for Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) payments, which they couldn’t do if the case was pending at the CCMA.

In September they discovered the department of labour’s system showed they had absconded from work, making them ineligible for UIF claims. The September 17 protest then broke out and the grooms reopened their CCMA complaint.

On Tuesday, Ziphozihle Josefu, provincial spokesperson for the department of labour, said  the department had intervened after the protest.

“During observation it was clear that according to the CCMA, the arbitration was late and no condonation application was received. This means the UIF claims will not be approved at this stage. The department will await the CCMA outcome to verify whether or not to pay the claims,” he said.

Josefu confirmed the workers are registered with the UIF and the employer is complying with labour laws.

“The issue was not with non-compliance but about a strike due to a groomer alleged to have stabbed a horse,” he said.

The police shot me three times with rubber bullets. They arrested me even though I was not part of the protest.
Zukile Matshisi

Zukile Matshisi was arrested during the September 17 protest. He alleged he was shot before being arrested.

“I was on my way to work. I saw the protesting workers running towards our informal settlement. Two security guard vehicles bumped me and I fell down. The police shot me three times with rubber bullets. They arrested me even though I was not part of the protest,” he said.

Matshisi made his first appearance on charges of public violence and malicious damage to property at the St Albans magistrate's court on September 21. He was released on bail and is due back in court on October 26.

At the time, the owner of Dippin Blu, Hedley McGrath, said he was considering legal action against the group. In an interview with Sporting Post, McGrath gave a detailed account of what happened from his perspective.

An industry with 'serious challenges'

Since their unprotected strike in February, most of the former grooms have not found work and are battling to make ends meet.

McGrath and his partner Yvette Bremner have since shut down the stable.

Nkosibonile Magquthela said he was also shot and injured during the protest.

He said he had been dismissed from Dippin Blu Racing in February and had found another job a month later at a security company. He had just returned home from the night shift, he said, when he heard a commotion outside his shack. He went to see what was happening when he was shot, allegedly by a security guard.

Police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla confirmed this. She said a case of attempted murder is being investigated for this incident.

Magquthela said: “I heard a big noise behind my shack. I went to check what was happening. There was a big crowd of residents and horses running. Then a security guard shot me in my knee.”

He was taken to Uitenhage Provincial Hospital and then transferred to Livingstone Hospital.

“The doctors said the bullet can’t be removed because it will damage my leg," said Magquthela.

He said he has not been unable to work since the shooting and fears he can no longer support his partner, their two children and his five siblings he helps back home in Engcobo.

I am a burden on my sister because I have no money to buy food.
Nkosibonile Magquthela

“We are victims in this industry. I had been working [at Dippin Blu] for eight years. My starting salary was R350 a week. We received an increase to R1,080 a week after the EFF  ordered our bosses to improve our salaries in 2019.”

“Now I am a burden on my sister because I have no money to buy food,” Magquthela said.

Thabo Nomkhonwana, 61, from Willowvale, worked at Dippin Blu for about 10 years but has been a horse groom for 43 years.

“My duties were to give the horses medication, check their temperature and tend to their wounds. During Fairview horse racing on Fridays I was not paid or given a lunch break. I tried for many years to fight this but I was told it is part of my job,” he said.

A distraught Nomkhonwana told GroundUp this week that the last time he and his 14-year-old son had food at home was in February. Since then, they have relied on neighbours and relatives for meals.

“I don’t know what my three daughters in Cape Town are eating because they are also not employed. I used to send them money. I am depressed,” he said.

“Last week I applied for an old age grant. In the meantime, I am trying to plant mealies in my garden to have something to eat,” said Nomkhonwana.

'Victims of unfair labour practice'

Mzawupheli Naki, 53, from Idutywa, said he had worked at different stables since 1987.

He recalled an incident in 2018 when a horse trod on and broke his leg at the Fairview Race Course.

“My boss sent me from pillar to post, claiming he was waiting for the doctor’s final report. He only paid me my normal R750 weekly salary for three months. We are victims of unfair labour practice and we don’t have a union to represent us,” he said.

Grant Paddock, owner of Paddock Racing Stable, said there are about 13 horse trainers and stables in the Eastern Cape, 12 of which are in Fairview.

Paddock said the industry has experienced “serious challenges” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The stakes have dropped by 60% and that means the grooms and trainers will lose jobs. The way things are going, I don’t know if I will still be operating in January,” he said.

“The workers are entitled to UIF and minimum wages. But in the last two years they have been getting 1% of the stakes. Grooms should be paid according to their experience. In my stable, I have grooms with 12 years' experience. But here if a minimum wage is R1,000, the grooms want the same amount. You can’t pay one more money,” he said.

Alan Greef of Alan Stables, which is one the largest, said: “We do everything according to the rules and regulations. Anyone who is subjecting the workers to poor working conditions must be investigated and dealt with accordingly. The stakes are not good but I have kept all my grooms.”

The workers now await the outcome of the CCMA hearing on Friday.