South Africa: Barloworld Workers Decry 'Unfair Retrenchments'

The future of thousands of former employees and trainees looks decidedly bleak after they were retrenched in what they - and labour unions - say has been an opaque process.

Richard's* life has taken a turn for the worse since being retrenched by Barloworld. He is stressed about how he is going to support his asthmatic wife and daughter, a grade 6 pupil who is on chronic medication. The 48-year-old was a wheel alignment specialist in one of Barloworld's automotive companies in Cape Town, but he was laid off in July after 12 years of service.

"At my age, where will I ever find a job?" he lamented. His job loss meant that his medical aid contribution was also cancelled. Now the medical aid scheme has threatened to blacklist him owing to his inability to settle the yearly fee.

Richard is one of thousands of workers retrenched by Barloworld, the international giant that has a strong presence in the equipment, logistics and automotive sector in South Africa and 11 other African countries. Barloworld argued that restructuring and retrenchment processes were the only viable option to sustain it through a Covid-19 induced sharp global recession that is projected to be prolonged.

But the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) does not agree. "We requested the company to disclose its financial status and to assess their finances, but what we discovered is that they are doing well. The indication is that the company did not suffer financially during Covid-19," said Numsa's mining sector organiser, Lucky Ndlangamandla, who is based in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga.

Nelly*, a mother of two, worked at Barloworld's human resources department in Middelburg. She was retrenched in mid-August. "To be honest, there was hearsay that retrenchments were coming, but looking at our workforce in HR, I never thought I'd be impacted. Middelburg [office] cannot be run by two people only - our sites are scattered," said Nelly, adding that she oversaw about 320 employees deployed at various sites where the company renders services.

Nelly is sceptical that Barloworld suffered tremendously as a result of Covid-19. She says where she worked there were at least five lucrative sites in the mining sector that needed the company's support, even during the hard lockdown. "It is not an issue of money. If it was so, how come they only know now?"

Splurging on executives

Nelly revealed that Barloworld booked luxurious hotel accommodation in Japan for its executives, their partners and some staff members to watch the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Early this year, executives also went on a team-building exercise to Dubai. She says if the company's finances were strained, such trips would not have taken place.

Nelly says a lot of money was also wasted on Barloworld's Khula Sizwe broad-based black economic empowerment share scheme. "About a year ago, they [Barloworld] launched the Khula Sizwe project. The project was run by internal people but owned by external people. It was rendering services with our own resources. A lot of money was spent on travelling around all the regions and for accommodation and all other expenses," she said.

According to its website, Khula Sizwe "was established for the purpose of acquiring and leasing properties in the normal and ordinary course of business as a property holding and management company. Barloworld has a number of properties that it uses for its operations. The majority of these properties will be sold to Khula Sizwe, which will have a top JSE listed company (Barloworld) as its anchor tenant, providing it with predictable cash flows for at least 10 years."

According to a senior executive from Barloworld, who asked to remain anonymous, "Covid-19 was not the end game, Khula Sizwe was the end game".

"The properties that belonged to Barloworld were sold to the staff. The people from the bottom got very little and those at the top got a lot of millions. They inflated prices and the profitability of the company is now under stress. They tried to put this under the narration of empowerment, [but only the elites benefited and] these people are already filthy rich. Now [Barloworld has] to retrench people right and centre. It was just reckless. It is corporate greed at its highest level."

Dashing trainees' hopes

Barloworld went as far as axing apprentices who were due to finish their training to become qualified artisans. Their training programme began in August 2017 and was supposed to be completed early this year, but was halted by the pandemic.

The apprentices received a monthly stipend from the sector education and training authority, which helps skills development by setting up learning programmes. This initiative is done through the payment of grants to employers and training providers.

New Frame met with some of the Barloworld Equipment mechanic apprentices from Limpopo. When the retrenchment news emerged, they thought they would be exempted. The company had about 17 apprentices in Polokwane, but according to its restructuring plan, only seven were needed.

On 26 August, they received a WhatsApp message to attend interviews the following day. Those who were unsuccessful received their termination notices on 28 August. However, the retrenchment notices contained a peculiar detail: they had been serving their notice period since 21 August, four days before the interviews.

"I have a child and I have been a sole provider for my child. Now I am going to be a burden to my parents, who are both pensioners," said Precious*, 24, one of the retrenched apprentices. "If it was a bogus interview, what criteria did they use? I am pissed off and it is like I have wasted three years of my life. You don't even know what you did wrong. How did I come about being retrenched? I still don't get it even today. Everyone thinks you're working for a great company, but when you are inside it is a rubbish company. They don't care about our feelings. In the consultations they've never included the learners."

'I feel like they've wasted my time'

Nomcebo*, 25, also decries the time she has lost. She had been studying for an engineering qualification at a college when an opportunity emerged for her to receive a stipend as a Barloworld apprentice, resulting in her dropping out. Her decision was influenced by her mother's struggle to finance her studies after the National Student Financial Aid Scheme abandoned her midway.

"I saw an opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands. When I got to Barloworld, I was excited and I fell in love with the job," she said.

But when she received the retrenchment letter, she was despondent. "I called my mom and cried. It was like I was dreaming. I am not coping, to tell you the truth. It is like I am somehow depressed. I don't deserve any of what they did to me. How could they do something like this to us?"

Thandi*, 28, from a rural Limpopo township, says she dropped out of university in 2017 while pursuing a postgraduate certificate in education. "This has been hell from the beginning. Just that you haven't met my mother - when she knocks off from work, she'd find me crying every day. I dropped out of school for this. I am coming back home to be a burden to my parents and [they have to support] my son. Do you understand the stress? Now I am treated like some used nappies or used goods," said an emotional Thandi.

A white apprentice, whom the apprentices said received "special treatment" from their instructors, was called back to work, yet she had been retrenched along with the others. The apprentices questioned this and their instructor told them on WhatsApp that they would also be called back to finish their training.

The company has committed to taking them back. It said it will provide accommodation and food and promised to be liable for medical costs if someone gets injured on company premises.

Abandoned after injury

Thereso Ntladi, 26, lives in Phokwane in Limpopo. She has not been able to work since 8 January after she was injured at Venetia diamond mine in Limpopo. An apprentice, Ntladi was standing next to senior artisans, who were rotating the tracks of a large mining shovel, there was "friction" and metal chippings went flying, resulting in her injury.

"I just saw that my hand was swollen and not moving. They took me to a medical station, where they conducted a scan to check if there are no broken bones. They saw metal inside my hand," said Ntladi.

Transferred to a hospital in Polokwane for an operation, she was discharged on 10 January. Her hand was bandaged for a month. "The metal cut the tendons of my hand. I am half paralysed now. I cannot lift heavy things. The doctors used elastic material and it can tear if I hold heavy things," she said.

Ntladi receives physiotherapy for her hand, and she has been responsible for her medical costs since she was laid off. She says Barloworld's mistreatment has severely affected her. "Nobody ever called to find out how the hand is or how I am doing. I have been through a lot and nobody cares," she said.

"What's next for me? Now I am just thinking about how I can make money to provide for my family. My mother looks after my 61-year-old father who became [visually impaired] in 2016. My older sister is unemployed and the one that comes after me is at college."

Numsa has submitted an application at the Labour Court in Johannesburg seeking the reinstatement of the retrenched workers. "The company had not yet advised the unions of the weighting to be attached to its proposed criteria in job interviews ... The company did not, prior to conducting interviews, advise the unions (or the affected workers for that matter) what it meant by 'skills' or 'qualifications' in respect of any restructured position," Numsa said in its founding affidavit.

Other labour unions with members at Barloworld, such as Solidarity and the Motor Industry Staff Association, have also approached the Labour Court to challenge the retrenchments.

Numsa's provincial organiser in Limpopo, Elias Mathuthu, says no words can describe Barloworld's conduct. "I've dealt with mafias in construction companies. Those in construction are pure mafias, but comparing them to Barloworld, I have no specific words to describe Barloworld and how they do things," he said.

'No one wants to listen'

Sello Josiah Mawela, 30, a father of six, lives in Musina. He had been working for Barloworld at Venetia mine as a mechanical operator since 2014. In 2017, he enrolled for an in-house skills development programme, which he successfully completed last year to become a qualified artisan.

Upon completing the course, he says, Barloworld told the participants that Venetia mine was overstaffed and they would be relocated to other mines. Early this year, Barloworld relocated or absorbed some of the participants elsewhere, but he was excluded.

Barloworld sent him a termination letter on 25 March. Three days later, his medical aid was also terminated. "I was deeply touched by how I was treated in Barloworld. When I try by all means to raise my complaints to my superiors, no one wants to listen to what I am saying. They are ready to abuse me emotionally, intellectually and otherwise. I was taken off site because I speak my opinion. I am really not okay," Mawela said in an email he sent to a human resources director at Barloworld Equipment.

On 30 June, Barloworld advertised two positions for a general mechanic. Because it fell within six months of his termination, Mawela says he had to be automatically reinstated or given preference. "I am suffering due to the fact that these people take advantage [of me]. I don't believe any child in South Africa should be treated like this," he said.

New Frame has seen emails sent between Mawela and his superiors. On 2 July, human resources officer Maureen Maphalle asked Mawela to send his documents for the positions advertised, which he did on 6 July. "Thanks, received," Maphalle replied to Mawela.

On 22 August, Mawela received an email from Barloworld training officer Muofhe Emily Mahani to say that he had withdrawn his application. She wished him the best of luck in his future endeavours. "I have never withdrawn anything," Mawela informed Mahani via email. He was then told that the content of the email was incorrect - the positions no longer existed.

But on 27 August they were advertised again. Following this, Mawela received an email that his application was unsuccessful, mainly because his curriculum vitae was not up to date and it contained minimal information. This is untrue, Mawela says. The email referred to an application he had submitted in December last year, when mechanical operator positions were advertised at Mogalakwena mine, about 250km from where he worked. They told him the posts were retracted and no longer available, yet some of his colleagues were offered the positions early this year.

Like thousands of others, Mawela says Barloworld has treated him unfairly and he wants justice to be served. "The people who did this must suffer. I want the company to be fair and to punish the people accordingly," he said.

Attempts to get comment from Barloworld and the sector education training authority were unsuccessful.

*Names have been changed for fear of reprisals.

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