Nature resort no utopia for guards facing eviction

New contracts from the North West resort’s board of trustees, which the guards were told to sign or lose their jobs, downgrade their pay and take away their on-site accommodation.

The Utopia Nature Resort describes itself as a jewel of tranquillity nestled in the Magaliesberg mountains of North West province. With more than 100 chalets, each privately owned, the resort boasts swimming pools, tennis courts and a campsite, all run by a management company appointed by the resort’s board of trustees. But for its essential security guards, it has become a stressful place to work as they spend the Covid-19 lockdown in limbo, wondering when they will be evicted.

The resort opened its doors during apartheid in the 1960s, as a whites-only pleasure resort where chalets could be rented for just R2. It has been a slow transformation for the resort, one that is now in jeopardy because of claims of unfair labour practices.

Because the resort is tens of kilometres away from the nearest town and there is no public transport, the workers who guard the resort have always been accommodated on site. They perform a vital role, securing the main gate and forming a roaming armed reaction unit. But at the end of February, a member of the board of trustees allegedly coerced the guards into signing new employment contracts that removed their right to accommodation. The guards were then instructed to vacate their premises by 1 April.

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Board member Christa Ferns, who is in charge of administration, allegedly called on the guards at home one night and told them to sign the new employment contract or “don’t bother coming to work tomorrow”, according to nine of the security guards.

A source connected to the resort said several members of the board were newly elected in 2019 and had mooted making changes to the security guards’ contracts. One member of the board resigned in protest, said the source.

Ferns did not respond to questions from New Frame. A staff member at the resort who would only identify herself as Leandra said the board of trustees would respond after the government’s Covid-19 lockdown. “Decisions concerning the security personnel are suspended until after the board meeting to ensure that we act in the best interest of all our staff,” said Leandra.

Waived benefits

But the nine guards say that neither the board of trustees nor the management staff have told them that their eviction is on hold. They have written a letter of complaint to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and are now waiting for a response.

The letter says: “Some of us rendered services for this organisation for a period of four to six years and by signing a new contract of employment, we are waiving our employment benefits.

“Transport to and from to buy groceries has been cancelled – reason unknown. Recently the employer furnished us with eviction letters without any consultation. We are working in a bad condition that is not healthy for a human being to work in. We have tried to communicate with the employer. This is intimidation, victimisation and violation of human rights. Since we start to work here, no criminal activities take place.”

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, the guards said “we already had employment contracts. Then they gave us a new contract. Christa Ferns said it must be signed within five days and if we fail to sign it, then they are going to enter us into that contract even if we refuse.

“We didn’t sign. Christa Ferns, she came on the second night and asked us why we didn’t sign the contract. We told her we don’t see the need for the contract because we already have contracts. But she just refused us. She said if this contract is not signed, then don’t come to work tomorrow. It means they were going to fire us without hearing. We have committed no offence,” the guards continued.

“The following morning, before we began working, they called us name by name to come to the office and told us we are wasting time. If we don’t want to sign, we have to go. She was aggressive to us and didn’t want to listen to us. So we just signed that contract by force.”

While their existing contracts do not state that the guards will be accommodated, a source at the resort said all the guards who have worked at Utopia up until now have been housed in the same accommodation. The new contract specifically excludes this, saying that “the company does not provide, subsidise or pay for accommodation” and that “transport will not be provided by the employer outside the premises of the employer”.

The new contract also appears to be a zero hours contract, with no guarantee of work. One clause says, “The availability of shifts, permanent posts and guard positions and posts is not guaranteed subject to the needs of the client and the client’s operational requirements.”

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Additionally, the new contract restricts the guards’ ability to seek other part-time employment, with a clause stating that guards who want to work part-time for other employers have to apply for permission in writing, which will only be granted if “the employer is satisfied that the proposed activity will not have a negative impact to the employee’s efficiency”.

Downgraded to lower pay

The Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (Psira) sets out grades for all security guards in the country, from A to D. Some guards who were on grade A have been downgraded to C in the new contracts.

“Why were we demoted from higher rank to lower rank? Because we will lose money. They undermine us because they have much money. We wanted a proper consultation,” the guards said.

Since being told they would be evicted, the guards have been visiting nearby commercial farms to ask about renting accommodation, but without success. “It is very scary looking for rooms at the farms, because we can’t enter to a place without permission because it is trespass. The farms said no, their accommodation is for their own workers,” said the guards.

“We wrote the board a letter to say we looked for accommodation and we couldn’t find it. But they didn’t respond.” The only other option is the nearest shack settlement, Majakaneng. But this is still 37km from the resort and no public transport runs between the two.

The guards say the new contract is a ruse to force them out of their jobs, so that a new private security company can be brought in to take their place. “We are totally unhappy for that contract. Our morale is low in the lockdown,” the guards said. The board of trustees declined to respond to questions about this. 

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The source connected to the resort decried the unfair treatment of the guards. “Their toilets have never been fixed properly but they are blamed for this and the suggestion is that they pay for breakages, even though only superficial work is done by the estate. Security say the toilets need a proper plumber. Their salaries have been downgraded. It seems to me that this new board is trying to make some savings, but are going for the workers and cutting their salaries as savings,” said the source.

Members of the board of trustees are at odds with each other, according to the source. Some board members have indicated in emails that the new contracts are “wrong” and that they are unhappy with how Ferns is handling the guards’ conditions of employment. 

Department of Employment and Labour spokesperson Teboho Thejane said, “We will act on this immediately, through our inspectorate.

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