The fire at the Bank of Lisbon in Johannesburg. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU/SOWETAN
The fire at the Bank of Lisbon in Johannesburg. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU/SOWETAN

The Gauteng department of education is still paying monthly rental fees for vacant buildings evacuated by its employees
for failing to meet health and safety standards.

Various departments in the province, as well as national departments, have complained about the issue of government office accommodation after the Bank of Lisbon building in central Johannesburg caught fire, killing three firemen.

Inspectors found the building in a parlous state, sparking union anger and government pledges to remove employees from buildings condemned by the safety inspectors.

The employees refused to move to alternative buildings allocated to their business units outside the city, citing logistical challenges and a unilateral change of working conditions by the department.

They warned that their work, including the processing of matric exams, would be affected by the displacement.

Teachers’ union, the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), said it was still waiting for the department to find permanent solutions to the crisis in which about 800 employees were left in the lurch after being relocated from the two buildings that housed some of the department’s directorates.

Some of the department’s employees are still working from "canteens and kitchens" at the Hollard building in the Johannesburg CBD, which houses its head office.

Others have resorted to working from their cars for more than a month after being relocated from the buildings.

Gauteng provincial spokesperson Thabo Masebe confirmed that the department was still paying rent for the vacant buildings that were now undergoing renovations.

Although he would not confirm how much the fees amounted to, he said they hoped renovations and maintenance work under way would be concluded in the specified time.

The provincial government would only then determine if they should make claims against the property companies if it is found they had breached the contractual terms of the lease.

"Work is being carried out by the companies. If at the end we are not able to use the buildings, we will have to go back to the contracts to see if we can get money back," he said.

Nine government-owned buildings in the province were also evacuated in September following the Lisbon Bank fires after they failed to meet health and safety standards.

Only the two buildings leased by the education department are privately owned.

Workers raised alarm when they found the buildings’ ceilings had exposed electric wiring and flooded during rainy seasons since taking occupation in 2016, but nothing was done.

Sadtu provincial secretary Tseliso Ledimo said the department has failed to respond to unions’ requests to get updates on the status of the evacuated buildings. He said organised labour wanted to determine how long workers would be in limbo as they push the department for a permanent solution.

A meeting arranged to discuss the issues with the employer was cancelled last week after workers complained that the situation they currently find themselves in was not conducive for work.

"A number of employees are affected by this situation, which is not ideal. They don’t want to be moved constantly because there is no proper plan.

"Some employees work in congested offices, some have no proper workstations and work in canteens and their cars," Ledimo pointed out.

Employees who did not want to be named confirmed to Business Day that they were "working from different spaces at head office [Hollard building], such as the canteen, boardrooms and kitchens" and also said they had to use their own cell phones and data services.

The provincial government has maintained that measures had been taken to ensure a seamless workflow during the buildings crisis by availing alternative office spaces.

Provincial leaders of Sadtu and the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) will meet on Tuesday to discuss how best to respond to employees’ complaints. Nehawu also has members in the department.