Bakery workers fired for demanding better working conditions

Some of the workers fired by Desai's Bakery in Saltville, Port Elizabeth. They were photographed outside the regional offices of the CCMA in Port Elizabeth where they were following up the progress of their case. Archive Photo by Joseph Chirume

The dismissed bakery workers took their employer to the CCMA for unfair dismissal.

An employer in Port Elizabeth who dismissed some of his workers in January after they allegedly asked for a pay increase and improved working conditions denies that he is a racist. The workers, however, recorded his alleged racist rant in which he calls them animals.

On 13 January 2020, Shangule Ngcanga and fourteen of his co-workers were dismissed from Desais Bakery without notice by the managing director, Zahid Desai. Ngcanga said their crime was to politely ask Desai for an increase in their salaries. He says Desai’s language in response to the workers’ request was offensive.

Ngcanga is the only South African citizen among the dismissed workers who hail from Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Desais Bakery operates in Saltville, Port Elizabeth, and specialises in baking bread, buns and other confectionery products.

Some of the workers are livid that after all the years of work which they say was abusive and undignified, they were eventually fired instantaneously without getting any benefit.

They said the only reminder they have of Desai are injuries sustained while working for him. They claim that they were not compensated for those occupational injuries. Instead they were allegedly fined for being negligent.

“The working conditions at the bakery are appalling and we were told in our faces that we belong to the bush. Workers are subjected to long working hours and forced to work overtime with little remuneration.

“We were mentally tormented daily as Zahid uses racist language at his workers. He openly tells them that the Department of Labour will do nothing to prosecute him because he is rich,” said a frail looking Ngcanga.

Ngcanga, who lives in KwaNoxolo, said he had worked for the bakery for about 17 years but was shocked to be fired with no benefits. He is struggling to support his wife and two children.

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Ngcanga claims he contracted tuberculosis as a result of poor working conditions when he would be woken up in the early hours of the morning and transported to the bakery seated at the back of an open van.

Holson Mathando worked for the same bakery for 12 years as a dough mixer. He had to contend with his boss’s rage after a dough mixing machine cut his fingers. He alleges Desai fined him R1,500 for the accident.

Mathando explained, “I was called all sorts of names. After my fingers were cut, Zahid bluntly told me that I was illiterate because I could not learn how to operate the machine.”

Mike Anussah’s two fingers were also cut by a dough mixer. He had worked for the bakery for four years. “I was escorted by Zahid’s friend who lied at Livingstone Hospital that I was cut whilst working on a motor vehicle. It pained me a lot but I could not do anything because I wanted my job,” said Anussah.

Gumi Mkondiwa was also cut and was treated at Life Mercantile Hospital. He also says he was fined for the misdemeanor.

The disgruntled former workers said they were earning R20 per hour. They demanded more money, accusing Desai of forcing them to work more than 13 hours per day. They said there were no lunch or tea breaks allowed, adding that they were paid R180-R200 to work on a Sunday for a shift that lasted 18 hours.

Elitsha contacted Desai to present him with a right of a response. He denied all the allegations levelled against him by his former workers and threatened to sue this publication, stating the case was still before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

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Desai said no one had worked for him for ten or seventeen consecutive years as alleged by the former employees, despite workers having shown hoards of payslips that show when they worked for the bakery.

He even refused to give a conclusive response on what the country’s labour laws say on the minimum period a worker should work in order to be made full-time. “The claim of seventeen years is not true. They had broken services with us. There was a time when they worked for us and left, worked again and left. All of them were doing broken services.

“We did not fire anybody. The case is at the CCMA now and I don’t want to answer any of your questions. You can’t write anything about false allegations,” said Desai.

He also refused to comment whether it is his voice that was recorded by one of the workers when he was dismissing them from his premises. Part of the recording says, “You won’t speak to me. I don’t speak to animals. You don’t see me in the bush. I am not a f&*king animal.You will never come here and intimidate me. This is South Africa not Zimbabwe, not Malawi.”

The Eastern Cape Department of Employment and Labour spokesperson, Ziphozihle Josefu, said she could not comment on cases before CCMA as it has its spokesperson.

Efforts to get comment from the CCMA were fruitless.

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About Joseph Chirume 46 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.