Grooms saddle up to boycott horse racing industry

Grooms claim they still face discrimination despite lengthy negotiations in June that led to a significant pay rise.

Grooms working in the multimillion-rand horse racing industry have called for the boycott of some prominent horse trainers, claiming unfair labour practices, low wages, poor living conditions and dangerous working conditions at the Randjesfontein racecourse at Midrand’s North Rand Training Centre.

“Here, a black man is treated like a condom,’’ said one of the workers who has joined the boycott and shutdown of all racecourses under the management of Phumelela Gaming, a company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The centre is leased out to trainers by Phumelela Gaming.

Workers’ wages were increased from R2 500 to R4 000 a month after lengthy negotiations. However, they claimed to still have no Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), sick leave, workmen’s compensation or benefits, and that their wages were often docked for arbitrary reasons. Some workers also accused one trainer of referring to them with grossly abusive and racist language.

The grooms said that if they were injured while working, they were taken to a public hospital, whereas the animals had private vets and received immediate medical attention.

A worker who did not wish to be named said that if a groom falls off a horse the trainer is likely to insult him and “run to check on the horse instead of you, the person who is taking care of this animal”. 

“The horses have more rights than us. We are still the animals here. Some lie and say they fell off a bicycle. They don’t even report the injuries here at work, because once you report an injury, you can no longer come back to work or you are called a stupid baboon, careless or useless,” he said.

Gideon Boloko started working at the Vaal racecourse in 1999, earning R650 a fortnight. In 2005, he was injured when he fell off a horse. His right hand remains scarred and he says that he received 44 stitches and a metal screw.

“It is difficult to leave because I have a family – three kids. They will suffer if I leave. I would just like for them [Boloko’s employers] to ensure that we are compensated if we are injured, because injuries ruin our work prospects if we want to leave, and this is bad for our children who need to be educated. It would be better if they set up an education trust for our children so if we are injured, they can still get an education,” he said, adding that his wages increased by only R50 a month.

Trainers respond

Geoff Woodruff, who started his business in 1988, rubbished the grooms’ claims.

“Any trainers who weren’t compliant were told to quickly get their house in order, which they have done, to the best of my knowledge,” he said.

Woodruff said he had put nine grooms on retrenchment notice, operating according to the last in, first out system, meaning the last person to be employed was the first one out.

“It’s not that we want to get rid of these guys. It’s that we, financially, are left with absolutely no option. Their wages have gone up very significantly and the income does not cover it,” he said.

Woodruff told New Frame that every groom working before the strike was either on the basic minimum wage or above it despite their experience level, adding that his highest-paid groom earned about R8 600 a month.

“Increasing their pay … means that we need to retrench workers, which will put more pressure on grooms because there are less people to tend to the horses, and now they have to take on the work of those who have been retrenched,” he warned.

27 July 2018: Horse trainer Geoffrey Woodruff in his office at the horse stables in North Rand Training Centre in Randjesfontein near Midrand.

One groom told New Frame his pay was docked between R150 and R200 if he was five minutes late for his shift despite working long hours, overtime and on holidays. Woodruff refuted claims that workers do not get paid on weekends or public holidays, adding that they worked fewer hours than the legally stipulated maximum.

Since voicing their grievances to labour inspectors and trainers, as many as 40 grooms alleged to have been unfairly dismissed for a range of reasons, including “being too clever”. 

“They told us that the racecourse isn’t making money, but some [of us] are being dismissed for being politically affiliated and bringing politics to the racecourse. Others are dismissed for stupid things,” said another worker who did not want to be named.

Political sackings?

Daismond Daweti has been working at the racecourse for 18 years under famed trainer Mike de Kock. He said he was dismissed in June after allegedly being told he had brought the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to the racecourse. Daweti was at the forefront of negotiations that took place in June between workers, the EFF and trainers. 

De Kock has vehemently denied this, blaming economic factors and a lack of return on investment for retrenching as many as 40 employees. He has also reduced the number of horses in his stable from 150 to 110. 

De Kock said Daweti was retrenched with 15 others because he closed down a particular division of MF De Kock racing stables, adding that Daweti accepted his package and there was no dispute.

“I was making a loss. It was not sustainable all year around, and they [horses] are not actually generating any money, while the overheads are expensive, so I had to reduce my workforce,” said De Kock.

De Kock said the number of horses being bred in the country was decreasing, resulting in fewer horses to train. “As trainers, we have to have our workers happy because we need our horses happy, because if the horses don’t win, we don’t earn,” he said.

De Kock said the EFF had shed light on many groom issues that trainers had not picked up on or complied with before. “The EFF has done a good job in highlighting issues, but where they let themselves down and lost the moral high ground was by introducing violence and expecting things to happen overnight,” he said.

In June, TimesLive reported that the EFF came to the training centre and allegedly threatened staff and employees after a heated negotiation. Among its list of demands was medical attention for workers, workmen’s compensation, fair labour procedures, decent working hours, UIF, a salary increase from R2 200 to R4 000, and proper representation.

De Kock claimed the political party intimidated some staff members, came to negotiations with weapons, locked down the entire training centre, and burned objects at the gate.

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