With the help of a union that recently expanded its footprint to the Eastern Cape, employees remain steadfast in challenging the retail giant to improve their wages and working conditions.
A strike by some workers at national retail franchise Spar's distribution centre in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape has been continuing for more than five weeks, with no end in sight. The workers, who belong to the Transport, Retail and General Workers' Union, known as Thorn, are demanding an 8.1% wage increase instead of the employer's offer of 3%.
Spar South Africa reported a turnover increase of 13.5% to R124.3 billion for the year ended 30 September 2020, six months of which were during the country's Covid-19 lockdown.
"We are asking for a piece of the pie from the profit made by Spar South Africa," said Thorn shop steward Siphosethu Mbambo. "Spar claims that they cannot bargain with us because we are a minority of the workers, yet they could not provide ... proof [of that]."
The union, which started operating in the Eastern Cape in October 2020, represents about a quarter of the workers at the distribution centre, which it says is more than enough for bargaining purposes. "Spar is misinformed to say that the union can't bargain because it has 24% [of the workers]. We can even bargain with 10%. This is the law, they must not create their own law," said provincial organiser Berito Juku.
According to the workers, Spar has allegedly intimidated Thorn members to withdraw from the union, employing unethical tactics. "Spar has never had a union. It's been [the situation for] well over 25 years, so we are the first union to enter Spar," said Mbambo.
"We are asking ourselves what they are hiding because they have been intimidating workers. An incident happened where certain workers were given written warnings at work and Spar employers gave them an ultimatum of either receiving the warning, or leaving the union. Many workers have left the union due to this practice."
A living wage
The workers earn a basic salary of R6 000, which they say is not enough. The workers, Thorn and organisers from the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) attended an official meeting with Spar management on 9 April. This came after Saftu had sent a letter proposing negotiations with the employer.
"The employer proposed that they will take a gross average of each employee and add allowances such as fridge allowances for those working in the fridge, overtime and night shift allowance." But Mbambo said this did not address the demand for an 8.1% increase. "We are not changing from this stance, we want the increment. We even asked them if what they presented is better, then why can't they give us this small amount we are requesting?"
Throughout the pandemic, retail workers such as those on strike have had the responsibility of ensuring that food and medical essentials are constantly available to the public. Yet they feel their employer has not adequately protected them against the virus.
"When workers contracted Covid, Spar did not close. They simply disinfected managerial offices and did not bother to quarantine the rest of the workers that were in close contact with infected workers. Spar claims that workers are ungrateful because they would give workers a bag of oranges during the time," Mbambo said.
Neliswa Mpongoshe, 28, who has worked for Spar for five years, says her chronic illness makes her vulnerable to Covid-19 but the company does not pay for workers to get tested. "When workers contracted the virus, none of us would be tested by the employer. I decided to go do the test myself. Spar didn't care about workers. They often stated that they were waiting for workers to show symptoms first."
Mpongoshe also claims that the Spar bosses often ask workers from one department to undertake duties in another without extra payment. "I am the only woman driving a reach truck. The truck is used to pick up heavy stock [and take it] from one place to another, but initially I was employed as a stock taker. I was told by the employers to help out with driving the truck because I was the only worker who can drive it.
"I worked every weekend night shifts, but I wasn't being paid for the shifts. Sometimes I would be asked to work overtime. I usually work on the weekends from 6am to 2pm, but sometimes I would be asked to do extra hours but will not be paid for those extra hours," said Mpongoshe.
Abuse of power
Lungelo Mthathi, 26, says managers and controllers abuse their power. "They know that there are labour laws that are in place to protect employees, yet they want you to do what they want, misusing their power.
"For example, I am a picker. I pick up bulk stock from shelves and wrap them and send them to another department. We would often be asked to help out in other departments on top of our own work. Sometimes you find that other department supervisors do this forcefully. This job I do is hard and it sometimes affects my lower back because the bulk stock is very heavy. On average, it weighs 25kg," he said.
The workers are also demanding better working conditions and an end to alleged unfair labour practices. "We had an employee here who was hit by a machine while working. She unfortunately lost her baby. After only three days of being at home, Spar employers told her to come back to work, clearly showing a lack of empathy for the accident that happened," said Mbambo.
Spar management has dismissed the allegations. "Spar Eastern Cape Distribution Centre management team would like to state that the allegations made against the business are unfounded, baseless and untrue," said logistics manager Siyolo Dick.
The company also issued a statement on 14 April claiming that the strike was in fact a "dispute about the refusal to bargain and not wage increases". Thorn refuted this, saying Spar's proposals were "not worth bargaining". The union said the workers were adamant that they would continue to strike until their demands had been fully met.