The working and living conditions of grooms working in the horse racing industry are under investigation by the parliamentary committee on labour.
Members of the committee conducted an oversight visit into the living conditions of grooms working at the North Rand Training Center in Randjesfontein, northern Gauteng, last month. This follows the launch of the investigation into the industry three months ago.
According to Lemias Mashile, the parliamentary chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Labour most grooms working at the training centre are not registered with the Department of Labour. Mashile said the grooms were not benefitting from the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA). He told New Frame that they were vulnerable with no one to defend their rights due to them not being represented by a labour union.
Grooms lamented the living conditions they were subjected to, adding that they would often have no gas to prepare their food in the outside area. “It is dirty where we stay, and there are six of us in one room. Even a pig sleeps in better conditions. This is hurtful,” says one worker who stays on the premises.
During a meeting with the grooms in their hostels, the committee heard allegations of employees working long hours, and the failure of their employers to comply with UIF legislation. This is allegedly by some horse trainers subcontracted to Phumelela Gaming and Leisure.
According to the company’s website, it is JSE-listed, and licensed to operate horse racing and totalizator betting in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. The committee also noted the absence of healthcare services.
Phumelela Publishing’s editor, Danie Toerien, says hostels at Randjesfontein and the Vaal were “built at a time when there was no suitable accommodation in reasonable proximity to our training centres and no transport available from accommodation elsewhere”.
Because of this, Phumelela has expressed that they would prefer for the workers to live with their families.
Toerien told New Frame that they have leases with the trainers, adding that their “role, together with the NHA [National Horseracing Authority], is to monitor that trainers on our premises comply with the various regulations. Should they not be compliant, necessary action is taken.”
Toerien, however, emphasises that Phumelela does not have any influence on how trainers run their businesses. According to him, the workers would experience more problems going forward due to the increase in their wages following negotiations.
“The trainers, who run their own business, cautioned that the wage increase demanded through the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] were simply unaffordable in the current economic climate and that acceding to such demands would inevitably have consequences as trainers took steps to keep their businesses viable,” says Toerien.
Exhausting and dangerous work
Workers claim they can be made to stand for up to 22 hours with a horse in a horse trailer, also called a horse float, when travelling to other provinces.
“Do you understand how dangerous that is? You are standing the whole way there and the horse is breathing on you. If the vehicle sways or stops abruptly, this can upset the horse and it can turn on you in that small space,” says a worker who prefers not to be named.
According to Toerien, the issue of transport would be sorted out in the next three months pending a trial period, adding that the current transport method had been in place for more than five decades.
“It was only recently brought to our attention, hence we are taking immediate action. We have explored alternative designs of horse floats and engaged with road traffic authorities to confirm if these alternative designs comply with road traffic ordinances.
“A new type of float, in which grooms are separated from the horses, is being constructed. Once complete, we will trial it and if it satisfies all parties, we will change the entire fleet of floats accordingly,” says Toerien.
The NHA’s Lyndon Barends says in a statement that the grooms are the only stakeholders who are currently not registered with the NHA.
“We intend to change that as soon as possible. It is imperative that an official national representative body is formed so that all future discussions and negotiations are dealt with as soon as issues arise,” he says.
The lack of registration means that workers are not recognised and cannot be properly represented. This has opened a gap for the EFF to get involved.
The Department of Labour has been instructed to conduct thorough inspections in the entire horse racing industry to ensure compliance with the laws of the country.
This is not the first time this has happened. In 2011 and 2013, a report titled The Gambling Review Commission’s Report was released, highlighting the grooms issues. The grooms confirmed that they have had these same grievances since 2011.
In a statement, the committee expressed their concern over the absence of female grooms and “advised the management of Phumelela to have a relook at the situation, and ensure gender inclusivity and women emancipation”.
The workers are planning a national shutdown at all the training centres owned by Phumelela, with the first actions planned for Kimberley, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.