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Former sales rep demands M8.5 million from tobacco firm

Caswell Tlali

MASERU — A former tobacco salesman is demanding M8.5 million in disability and employment benefits from a British tobacco company.

Thabang Qathatsi says he joined British American Tobacco (BAT) as a sales representative in 1999.

BAT is a well-known tobacco manufacturing company that sells well-known brands such as Coughtleigh, Peter Stuyvesant, Rothmans, Craven A, Dunhill, Consulate, Mills Special, John Rolfe, Paul Revere and Lucky Strike.

Qathatsi says things went well until March 2005 when he was involved in an abseiling accident that left him permanently disabled.

The abseiling was part of teambuilding activities which formed part of the company’s programme of events.

Medical checks done by Dr Johan Wilkinson from Mediclinic in Bloemfontein revealed that between March 2005 and 2007 Qathatsi was forced to use pain killers.

Wilkinson also says in his medical report that Qathatsi’s “functional recovery (was) not good at all.”

Qathatsi can move around on his own but he cannot do work that requires him to travel long distances as a sales representative.

“He is not capable of doing that,” reads Wilkinson’s report.

“Sitting and driving provoke back and leg pain, cannot drive for more that 100-150km. Carrying heavy objects has an effect on the lower back and also the neck that has restricted movements,” says the report.

“Due to the back problem he was also instructed by me not to lift heavy objects from the floor,” Wilkinson’s report says.

The first medical report that was sent to the company detailing his injury revealed that his neck was damaged and spine crooked.

The company responded to the report by removing allowances from his salary on grounds that he was no longer entitled to them as he could not perform the duties that he used before he was injured.

The employer also allegedly stopped its 11 percent pension fund contribution to which he contributed 7.5 percent to make it 18.5 percent.

In September 2005 he says he attended the first injury related meeting in Stellenbosch in Cape Town where the benefits and remunerations manager insisted that he should resign on account of his disability instead of applying for disability benefits or take early retirement.

Qathatsi however refused to resign.

In January 2006 the employer allegedly increased Qathatsi’s medical aid contribution without consulting him while the company’s contribution was reduced.

From March 2005 to February 2007 Qathatsi was regarded by the company as someone who was temporarily disabled.

Dr Wilkinson confirmed his permanent disablement in March 2007 and the disability benefit fund application was prepared.

In October 2007 the company wrote to Qathatsi telling him that he would be retrenched by the end of that year.

He queried the company’s decision to retrench him and was invited to a disability benefits approval meeting that was held in Bloemfontein.

When he attended the meeting on December 13, 2007 Qathatsi said the company’s insurance provider, Sanlam, was not represented.

Also a firm of brokers used by the company, Alexander Forbes, was not represented.

The company’s committee on the disability benefit fund allegedly did not show up as well.

Qathatsi says he met three managers, Elvezo Cupido, John Titmus and Karen Naidoo.

The two main points on the agenda were the signing of the termination of service agreement on grounds of ill-health and the company’s appointment of Alexander Forbes as the administrator of its retirement and disability benefit funds of which Sanlam was already the insurer when he was employed in 1996. 

“I was given some time to read both letters … my failure to deeply understand their contents led to Mr Cupido’s interpretation of the letters to me,” Qathatsi said.

“My suggestion that I needed some legal advice in that regard was turned down,” he said.

“I was told I will lose the monthly payments if I did not sign the documents.”

Qathatsi alleges he was advised to discuss the matter with his wife over the telephone and she said he should “sign to escape the tenseness of the situation that I was in then.”

“Things had to be done hastily to enhance the cigarette distributor in Maseru to start its operation in January 2008, I was told,” he said.

On December 29, 2007 he wrote a letter withdrawing the signatures he appended on the agreements but the company did not respond, Qathatsi said.

The monthly payments Qathatsi was promised were inconsistent depending on whether he had gone for a medical check-up and sent the results to the company and the insurance firm.

“This is a clear indicator that I had been placed under a temporary disablement under the pretense of permanent from the outset in March 2005,” he said.

The employment termination agreement clearly stipulates that while Qathatsi was receiving the monthly disability payment “the company shall continue to make contributions towards (his) medical aid scheme (if applicable) and retirement/pension fund”.

Qathatsi claims he was entitled to a lump sum payment of disability and employment termination benefits, a claim the company has rejected.

“Upon termination of our relationship I was supposed to be paid all my monies together with my disability compensation,” Qathatsi told the Sunday Express.

Qathatsi says he wants the company to pay him M8 572 080 as his monthly salaries from the day he was engaged up to the day he was due for retirement.

These would include annual bonuses, allowances, the disability compensation and other benefits.

In response the BAT insisted last week that Qathatsi received full remuneration and benefits.

“According to BAT South Africa’s communication manager, Ms Itumeleng Langeni, Mr Qathatsi received full remuneration and benefits, including annual salary increases, from the time of his injury until his disability benefits were approved,” reads part of the company’s response.

“According to company policy, his employment contract was terminated once he started receiving disability benefits, which provide for monthly payments and not a lump sum payment as would have been the case with retrenchment,” the company says.

The company says since January 2008, Qathatsi has been receiving monthly disability benefits from Sanlam and subject to periodical medical examinations as required by the insurer and confirmation that he remains disabled he will continue to be paid until his retirement age.

Upon reaching retirement age Qathatsi will be paid his retirement benefits in full, the company says.

The company also says Qathatsi’s payments were suspended in May last year because he failed to submit his latest medical examination forms to Sanlam.

“In our investigation it was discovered that Mr Qathatsi sent a copy of his medical examination to the insurer’s unmanned e-mail address on 26 October 2010 and copied BAT South Africa,” says the company.

“According to the insurer, this report was never received by the disability centre.”

The company says it forwarded a copy to the disability centre on January 18 this year.

“We can confirm that his medical report was assessed and approved by the insurer; his monthly payments were reinstated accordingly.”

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