Desperate to keep their jobs, Wits cleaners say they signed contracts which they were not given time to read – making them all temporary workers for the next three months.
Ukweza took over from Supercare as the new company to whom Wits has outsourced its cleaning services. Cleaners have claimed for years that Supercare treated them unfairly. Wits Vuvuzela spoke to several cleaners about the new contracts, which were signed during the university break.
Maggie* said all the workers were called in on a Saturday to sign the new contracts. The workers were not given copies of the contracts or even given time to read through what they were signing.
“We had no time to read the contracts, but we were scared to lose our jobs so we just signed,” said a visibly upset Johanna*. Once they had signed, she said they were given a thick document to take home and read through. It set out the terms of their contracts.
Only at this point did the cleaners realise they would be working on a temporary basis for three months, after which permanent positions would be given.
Agnes* who has worked at Wits for 13 years found this unfair, especially because the contract said they could be dismissed without warning during those three months. “I have been here for 13 years, how can I be a temp?”
Tokelo Nhlapo from the Workers’ Solidarity Committee said the new contracts also contained a clause which allowed the workers to be body-searched, something he thought would allow for “poor working conditions”.
The workers were forced to sign because they were desperate for employment, he said. They were left especially vulnerable because contract workers were not allowed to have a union. “The university is taking advantage of structural unemployment,” said Nhlapo.
Clauses and responses
Nhlapo also made these allegations on twitter. He was engaged by the vice chancellor, Prof Adam Habib, who replied: “Deliberately lying serves no purpose but destroys Wits reputation.”
Besides the brief interaction on twitter, Nhlapo said Habib and Prof Tawana Kupe had been reluctant to engage with the Workers’ Solidarity Committee, because it was not a “recognised body” in the university structure. “We will continue to engage them. If they don’t listen we will engage students.”
A source from Ukweza management, who asked not to be identified, said: “No-one forced them to sign. They could have left when Supercare left.”
He added that no-one could say whether Ukweza was good or bad yet. “As for the body searching, it hasn’t been implemented so I can’t say anything about that.”
Kupe told Wits Vuvuzela that the allegations made by Nhlapo and the cleaners were not true.
“We would not condone such a practice because we are committed to the upholding worker’s rights and protecting them from abuse,” Kupe said.
He added that fixed term contracts do not automatically make the workers temporary workers. Kupe said the university would engage the Workers’ Solidarity Committee after they took measures “to regularise their status.”
*Names have been changed since the workers requested that their identities be protected.