KwaZakhele Spar workers strike for better working conditions

Protesting Spar workers at the main entrance to the Daku Spar in KwaZakhele. Photo: Joseph Chirume.

Hundreds of workers of Spar retail shops in Port Elizabeth embarked on a strike accusing their employer of gross violation of employment rules and regulations. The agitated workers thronged outside the main gate where they protested while armed police kept a close watch.

Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Employees of Daku Spar in KwaZakhele started their protest action last week on Friday after peaceful negotiations with their employer failed. The 234 workers are demanding fair overtime compensation. They also want to be paid money from a share scheme they say every Spar worker across the country should benefit from.

The workers also called for an immediate abolition of labour brokers.

They also accused management of making them pay for their uniforms. The workers added that the management was biased towards white employees and two black senior managers.

The angry workers revealed that Spar management does not want them to join unions. They vowed to continue with their protest action until management addresses their grievances including the recognition of their union.

Workers’ representative, Siphiwo Nkayi explained, “We are working under unpleasant and unfair conditions. We have had to take this action because our bosses are arrogant and they don’t respect our input. We don’t want labour brokers here because when we applied for our jobs we submitted our CVs directly to Spar. We are therefore surprised to find out that some of the workers are still employed under a certain labour broker whose contract with Spar was terminated many years ago.”

Nkayi added, “We have a share plan that all Spar employees in the country contribute to. To our surprise we were not paid when the shares were distributed to beneficiaries in June this year. Where did our money go? Who cashed in our money and who gave that person the permission to do so while we are swimming in a pond of poverty? Interestingly, our colleagues at other Spar franchises got their share of the money. With great respect we asked the owner, Billy Boucher, as to why we were not being paid for our shares when other Spar shops paid their workers.”

“His answer was nothing but a show of arrogance and contempt. He bluntly told us that he had nothing to do with the shares as an overseas company was administering it. He even refused to give us the contact details of that purported overseas company.”

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Nkayi revealed that the workers had no other option but to close the shop and embark on a protest action. “We unanimously agreed to strike. We feel we are fighting for what rightly belongs to us. The company is raking in millions in Rands in profit while its workers are living in abject poverty. We are also not happy that the company charges interest on money that they loan us. We understand that borrowing money at 0% interest rate is part of our benefits.”

“We close the doors at 7pm, said Nkayi,” but we are held up in the shop until 9pm. We are not paid for these extra hours. The same happens with Sundays and public holidays, we are not paid overtime for working on these days. We pay for our uniforms and safety shoes, something that the company should be providing at their expense.”

A female worker added, “The management is abusing us both emotionally and physically. If you complain about the working conditions, they quickly tell you to pack and go. They plainly tell you in your face to resign and leave their premises. Many workers have been expelled after complaining about their working conditions. We are often told that we are just workers and not part of the company. Their action really demoralizes us.”

Another worker who has worked for Daku Spar for many years explained, ”I have been here for more than seven years. To my surprise I am still considered a casual worker. This means I don’t have any benefits and compensation. I have three children who are all at high school. I get help from my disabled mother whose social grant money we use. I can’t afford to visit my in laws because I am afraid if I take days off someone would be employed in my position. The Department of Labour has been here several times but their efforts are just fruitless.”

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Community support

The protest was also joined by members of the community who said that they were there to give moral support.

Sivuyile Joy was one of the community members who joined the workers. “We have decided to give our moral support to the workers. These workers are part of this community and it pains us to see them being ill-treated. They work irregular hours and are exposed to criminals because this area has lots of criminals. We want Spar to improve working conditions. Spar is helping people in the community by making our shopping easy as we don’t have to go to town to do our shopping. This brings development to KwaZakhele and the surrounding areas. We are not happy that the shop is closed but it’s for a good cause because the workers should fight for the improvement of their rights,” he said.

Another community member, Zanomvuso Dhlamini, weighed in and took a swipe at two senior black managers:”Instead of them joining forces with their black counterparts in fighting for better and improved working conditions, these black managers shamelessly become part of the oppressors. We need the shop here but not their management.

“They remind us of Apartheid where the black person was referred to as worthless”, he added.

Daku Spar owner, Billy Boucher, refused to be drawn into saying much. He only said, “It is an internal matter and of a legal nature. We have taken the issue to the CCMA for arbitration. As to when we will open, I don’t know.”

In the year to the end of September, the food and drug retailer said operating profit climbed to R2,6-billion from R2,3 billion in the previous year.

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About Joseph Chirume 37 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.