Racehorse stables 'better' than the rooms for the grooms
Mawande Sithole* shares a cramped room with seven colleagues at Randjesfontein racecourse in Midrand, Gauteng.
Some of the steel beds are double-bunked to accommodate the eight men who work as grooms at the facility.
Each day they wake at 3am and take a shower. The first three to the shower get hot water from the single geyser before it runs out, leaving about 45 others who live in the hostel to endure an icy stream from the shower heads.
Old sacks are used as curtains to offer the illusion of privacy in the showers or on the toilets. Mostly the men prefer not to use the rundown, dirty indoor toilets.
After the stark ablutions, the men start their day working on some of SA's top racehorses. On a single weekend some of those horses will rake in more money than their grooms will see in a lifetime.
Sithole's job requires him to work seven days a week and live on the premises at Turffontein. He earns R1,000 a week.
The living conditions at Randjesfontein training centre, which the South African Grooms Association says is among the four worst in SA, was recently raised by public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane in her report on the state of horse racing.
At Turffontein, some grooms sleep in horse stalls because there are not enough rooms. Others sleep in a shipping container that has an illegal electricity connection.
The men cook on an outdoor gas stove, and there is no fridge to store food.
The trainers pay the grooms' salaries and JSE-listed Phumelela Gaming & Leisure, which manages the bulk of horse-racing and betting operations in SA, is responsible for the grooms' accommodation.
Phumelela's Colleen Goodman said most trainers in Gauteng, the Free State and the Northern Cape rented stables from Phumelela.
"In spite of not employing the grooms, Phumelela makes accommodation available to them at its training centres and does not levy a charge for services such as gas, water and electricity. Nor does Phumelela charge for repairs and maintenance to these grooms' premises," she said.
Phumelela said the maintenance of grooms' accommodation and the provision of services amounted to about R6m a year, and "this includes the current refurbishment at the Randjesfontein training centre".
Goodman said Phumelela was in "sensitive discussions" with the Gauteng MEC for finance and the Gauteng Gambling Board regarding issues raised by the public protector.
Joe Soma, of Joe Soma Racing Stables, said conditions were improving. He said grooms were supposed to be paid a minimum wage of R1,000 a week, but admitted that only "about 90% of us trainers comply. For some years we've taken our eye off the ball, but now things are back on track."
Grooms spoke to Sunday Times about conditions. "Showers have no proper doors and toilets have no locking doors and they are filthy," said a 32-year-old groom from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape.
"We are not pigs, we are human beings. We need bosses who can treat us as such," said a 41-year-old father of three from the Free State.
Grooms association president Chophelikhaya Simoto said "the horses live and sleep in better, cleaner stables" than the grooms.
In 2012, Simoto complained to the public protector about R17.5m allocated by the Gauteng government from the Horse Racing Development Fund for the construction of single and married quarters at Newmarket racecourse in Alberton. The racecourse closed before the upgrades could be done, yet the money was never returned.
Mkhwebane has called on the Gauteng Gambling Board to recover the balance of the funds from Phumelela and to ensure a trust is established for the grooms and other low-skilled employees in horse racing.
Randjesfontein has 416 grooms and Turffontein 228.
National Horseracing Authority (NHA) CEO Vee Moodley said the organisation had not received any complaints from grooms about being mistreated. He did not say if complaints about their accommodation had been received or addressed.
"The employment contract is between the trainers and their grooms. It has been agreed that a unified grooms association must be formed and thereafter they will provide the NHA with the numbers they represent."
Labour department spokesperson Teboho Thejane said it conducted inspections on Thursday and contravention notices were issued at Randjesfontein and Turffontein.
He said at Turffontein some employers opted to rent rooms for employees outside the racecourse.
The department is lodging a case with the labour court against other employers who are not complying.
* Not his real name