The struggles of Port Elizabeth horse handlers

Grooms involved in the protest at the Fairview Racecourse in which a man was injured and a horse was killed speak about life in a shack settlement and the fight for funds owed to them.

The Fairview Racecourse in Port Elizabeth is known as one of the best entertainment and horse racing venues in the country. But the glamorous lifestyle to which it caters is a far cry from the life of squalor led by hundreds of grooms who live in the adjacent shack settlement.

There are no toilets at the Fairview shack settlement. Grooms and other workers are forced to squat in nearby bushes to relieve themselves. Electricity is connected informally while there is a single tap also connected informally at a nearby horse stable shared by around a thousand residents.

The Fairview settlement came into the spotlight on 17 September 2020 when a man was injured, a horse died and several others were injured after former workers at the Yvette Bremner Stable protested after a dispute over dismissals and Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) payments. 

23 September 2020: Grooms formerly employed by leading Port Elizabeth horse trainer Yvette Bremner wanted answers about their Unemployment Insurance Fund payments. Most of them hail from the former Transkei.

Labourers, and nothing else

A groom who has 30 years of experience in the trade – six of which were spent at the Fairview Racecourse – recently took New Frame on a stroll through the settlement.

The frail-looking middle-aged man, who asked to remain anonymous, has horse grooming in his blood, passed to him from his father. “I have known no other job than horse training and grooming. My father was a celebrated horse rider in Mthatha and fortunately I inherited that skill and the passion from him,” he said.

Most of the grooms living in the settlement hail from the Transkei, the hub of traditional horse racing in Eastern Cape. “Some horse trainers at the Fairview … training course don’t give a damn about their grooms and other workers. They are only interested in our labour, nothing else. None of them has ever tried to improve our living conditions. This is the worst racing course I ever worked for,” said the 58-year-old who has worked for trainers in Gauteng, Cape Town and Durban.

The smell of human excrement filled the air around the shacks. The surrounding bushes were littered with faeces. A group of children were playing under a tree while other children tussled in a game of mock wrestling in an open field, which, the groom said, was also used at night by some residents to relieve themselves.

23 September 2020: The protest by grooms has put the spotlight on the poor living conditions of residents in the densely populated Fairview shack settlement next to the training centre. It has limited running water and no electricity or toilets.

A community leader who also asked to remain anonymous said: “There are 395 shacks with an estimated population of about 2 000 people. We don’t have a clinic. Our police station is also very far away at Kabega Park Police Station. Most of the people work in the various horse training stables while others work on farms around us.”

President of the South African Grooms Association (Saga) Chophelikyaya Simoto blamed Phumelela Racing and Leisure, which has owned the racecourse since 1999, for not providing decent accommodation for the workers. He said the company lagged behind other race courses.

Simoto explained: “The race owner should provide accommodation for the grooms the same way they provide stables to trainers. The main issue is that the industry does not recognise our organisation, Saga, despite the government having recognised us a long time ago. The trainers should also ensure their workers are living a normal life.”

Simoto said Phumelela Gaming and Leisure was the only racecourse owner in the country that still did not offer decent accommodation to grooms. Gold Circle in KwaZulu-Natal and  Kenilworth in Cape Town have hostels for their grooms.

23 September 2020: Hundreds of Fairview residents collect water from one communal tap that they installed themselves. The tap’s pipes are linked to nearby horse stables and the pressure drops when workers at the stables are using water.

“It is shocking that about 200 grooms and their families live in a bush where there are no toilets while horses live in comfortable stables complete with water and other services,” said Simoto.

Meanwhile Phumelela said it has been in business rescue since May 2020 following a year of financial difficulties. 

Company spokesperson Andrew Langham said the Fairview settlement has historically been the subject of formal discussions between Phumelela management, the occupants and the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality. “It has proven difficult to progress with these discussions while there has been a national disaster proclamation in place and while Phumelela has been trading under financially distressed conditions and its future uncertain,” said Langham.

“Phumelela have been here for 21 years and it’s a lot of time that they should have built hostels. They are good at lying and doing damage control. There is no progress and I don’t envisage any in the foreseeable future,” explained another groom.

Workers protest 

One of the grooms from the stable volunteered to speak on behalf of his colleagues about the incident on 17 September, on condition of anonymity.

He explained that on 6 February, two grooms were trimming a horse’s coat when one of them accidentally nicked its neck with the trimming scissors. “The horse had panicked when they were about to cut the furs. However, they did not report this to Bremner, owner of Yvette Bremner Stable, assuming the wound would heal quickly since it was a small cut.”

The worker claimed that Bremner discovered the wound the following day and called the groom to her office where her partner allegedly held the groom by the neck, shoving him. He alleged that the groom was forced to sign a dismissal letter before he was pushed out of the office, shouted at and told that he should never set foot on their premises again.

The groom said all 40 employees pleaded with Bremner to reverse her decision to dismiss the groom. They even offered to reimburse her the cost of treating the horse. “Bremner said the cost of treating the horse was R11 000, but she insisted she would not reverse her decision. After seeing she was digging in, we told her to pay the dismissed groom his wages and all his termination benefits as well as to sign the Unemployment Insurance Fund [forms] first. She became [so] agitated and angry that she chased all of us away,” claimed the groom.

Bremner has not responded to several requests for comment. Business Day reported that Bremner has decided to quit racing in the province. 

Bremner’s business partner Hedley McGrath previously told the media that the groom was fired for stabbing the horse in February. Another groom said the other grooms agreed to boycott work from 12 February in solidarity with the dismissed groom. 

23 September 2020: Uncollected rubbish is a common sight in the Fairview shack settlement. The community is mainly made up of people who work as racehorse grooms.

“On 22 February,  Bremner paid our annual leave days. That’s how we learned she had fired us. She refused to give us the UIF forms in order for us to claim money from the fund. We took our case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, but we did not succeed with the case,” he claimed.

The groom claims they made several visits to Bremner to have her release the UIF forms but their efforts were fruitless. “We wanted to get payment from UIF yet she was sitting on our forms. This was the main reason there was a protest on 17 September.

“We went to her stable with the aim of closing it down until she gave us those forms because we have not earned an income since February and our families are starving. So we wanted action to highlight our predicament yet she was refusing to sign our UIF forms.

“We went to her stable early in the morning with the aim of barring workers from entering the premises on that day. Unfortunately, as we approached the stable, one of the horses bolted out in panic and ran away toward the direction of our shacks where there is a stable. The horse didn’t make it to the stable because it got injured along the way by falling multiple times. The horse ultimately died.

“Bremner reacted by sending Nitrous Security guards to trace the horse. Instead, the guards stormed into our shacks attacking whoever was in sight. They were indiscriminately shooting, using rubber bullets. One person sustained serious injuries from the rubber bullets. Workers from other stables left their posts, rushing to see whether their families were safe in the shacks. This is how other protesters joined in.”

The groom said protesters eventually opened the stables and all the horses ran out in a stampede. He said this was triggered by Bremner’s refusal to provide transport to take the injured man who had been shot by Nitrous Security guards to hospital.

23 September 2020: A rubber bullet shell that was one of many used to disperse angry protesters at the Fairview Racecourse training centre in Port Elizabeth.

He rubbished claims that they stabbed the horses, saying the horses sustained injuries during the stampede. The grooms said they have a good relationship with their horses. Bonding with them is part of the job. 

During the protest, local resident Wendy Wozny posted a call to arms on social media. In the message, she called for anyone with licensed shotguns to come to the aid of the Fairview Racecourse which was under “siege”.

Later, however, she said, “I was just encouraging people around the area to come and assist with taking horses away. I did not create the message but it was a security company that wanted assistance.

“The response was overwhelming as people came to assist. I never promoted violence but wanted to assist horses that were on [the] loose.”

The Horses

Langham said that after the incident Phumelela set up a meeting of the parties with the Department of Employment and Labour. He said, “The grooms are employed by the trainers of the horses and Phumelela may not get involved in the employer/employee relationships, however, Phumelela has facilitated discussions with the Department of Labour and the affected parties with the intention to resolve the matters in contention.”

The spokesperson for the National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Meg Wilson, condemned the incident. Wilson said in a statement, “This situation is incredibly disturbing – the fact that the animals were targeted in what appears to be an employer/employee conflict is not only absurd but absolutely inexcusable. These kinds of disputes should be settled in the appropriate forums.”

23 September 2020: Port Elizabeth police arrested one person following the labour dispute incident at the Fairview Racecourse training centre.

Eastern Cape Horse Care Unit inspector Carla Hazel said, “We are still waiting for the trainer to hear what charges they are going to lay against the accused and how we can assist them. We were not there when the violence happened and we did not see anything ourselves. We just responded by looking after the horses.

“There were various injuries on horses ranging from scratches and grazes. To me, some looked like stab wounds because we deal with horses and donkeys from time to time. Some had blood on their noses and sadly one horse died. Some of the horses were injured from running into the bush.”

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