Cleaners handled invoices at public works department, backlogs cleared
As permanent staff, cleaners didn’t want temporary jobs in the department
Who do you turn to if you don’t have enough finance officials to process your service providers’ invoices? If you are South Africa’s department of public works and infrastructure, you rope in the cleaning staff.
MPs couldn’t believe their ears on Tuesday when senior public works officials told them that sometimes cleaners in the department helped to send invoices to suppliers and managers.
The department was appearing before parliament’s public accounts watchdog (Scopa) to talk about the late payment of invoices. The matter had been flagged by the auditor-general in the 2018/19 annual report.
The department’s CFO, Mandla Sithole, blamed companies for changing their banking details. He also cited disputes over invoices as one of the reasons the department couldn’t pay within the stipulated 30 days. Sithole also admitted that public works officials sometimes failed to certify invoices.
The CFO bragged, however, that things had changed since the AG’s report was published, saying at the beginning of the financial year under review, the situation had been “very bad”. Then, there were about 11,000 invoices that were not paid within 30 days. It closed the financial year with 511 invoices unpaid within 30 days. Last week, the number was below 200.
The department deals with about 15,000 invoices a month.
In the year under review, the Cape Town office was the worst offender in paying invoices outside the 30-day period, MPs heard, with “above 7,000” invoices not paid. However the figure stood at 49 last Friday. The Durban regional office was second at 150 invoices, Mmabatho 17 and Pretoria 12.
Sithole said the problem in the Cape Town office was lack of capacity and the office also complained that service providers were not submitting accurate invoices.
“Capacity, I think, in Cape Town it was bad, I must say ... because at some point they said they had to use cleaners just to send invoices to managers and follow up.”
He said the director-general intervened and contract workers were hired to assist, which brought about the changes.
He said the office had a high turnover and a lot of vacancies at the time of the audit.
Director-general Sam Vukela said the structure of the department was skewed and that in areas where there was a need for capacity, especially in finance, there were insufficient positions.
MPs warned that the use of cleaners to process invoices compromised the department’s system and may lead to complaints from service providers about exposure of information like their bank accounts to people who hadn't signed non-disclosures agreements. They were also concerned this may be tantamount to abuse and exploitation of the cleaners, who were paid to clean.
“Your system is vulnerable, it’s open to abuse and corruption, and the integrity of your information is absolutely compromised,” said Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa.
He was quick to point out that the committee was not calling into question the integrity of cleaners or casting doubt on their persons, but that it spoke of a systematic collapse of the unit.
“If you use cleaners to send invoices, that tells you the situation is dire. Cleaners are doing work they are not remunerated for,” he said.
“This thing of using cleaners doesn’t sit well with me. Somehow it’s probably the biggest indictment of anything we are going to hear today. Do these individuals even have a choice when they are sent to do these things or are they at the mercy of the supervisors?”
Vukela defended the practice, saying the department had cleaners who were graduates.
He added that the department had created a system wherein it identified officials who were appointed at cleaning level, but had the qualifications to be posted at other levels in the department.
MPs didn’t buy it. They questioned why cleaners with skills were not given internships instead. They also raised possible exploitation.
Vukela said as permanent workers, cleaners didn’t want temporary jobs in the department.
MPs called on public works and infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille to intervene and decisively deal with the possible exploitation of cleaners. She promised to launch a full investigation to understand who gave the instruction to use cleaners, before getting back to the committee.