Workers at Truda foods locked in on-going labour dispute

Some of the 80 workers who were suspended by Truda Foods having a meeting in Ezibeleni last month. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Suspended Truda Foods workers say they have been asking for a meeting with the company CEO as the local managers do not listen to their grievances.

Truda Foods in Komani (Queenstown) is accused of imposing bad working conditions, managerial arrogance, bullying and of undermining unions. According to the Komani Residents Association (Kora), the South African Security and Allied Workers Union (SASWU) and the workers suspended by the employer, the workers at the factory are exploited and live in fear of being dismissed. The company has denied the allegations levelled against it.

Xolani Ngxathu from Kora explained that Truda Foods workers had been picketing outside the Komani factory to demand a meeting with the company CEO as the management was not keeping its promises. “The workers were asking for a meeting with the CEO who promised to come but never did. The fact that he kept on promising was a delay tactic as it ensured that production continued,” said Ngxathu. The company CEO, Colin van Heerden, denied this, claiming that he first learnt that the workers wanted to meet him via a radio programme.

The contempt of court case against the suspended Truda Foods workers has been postponed until the 5th of February 2021. Photo by Nicole Collier Naidoo

Workers’ grievances not heard by local management

Speaking to Elitsha from a hill outside Ezibeleni Magistrate Court last month, Ngxathu explained that Kora was asked to intervene after the workers felt that their grievances were falling on deaf ears. Kora had an established relationship with the company, receiving donations of food parcels for distribution to the poor during lockdown. “We came to the meeting but when the management in Komani became aware of what we were there to do, they changed their attitude and asked us to leave,” said Ngxathu.

According to a local news site, The Rep, he and other leaders have left Kora to form another civic organisation, Ikora (Independent Komani Residents Association).

Charged and suspended for liking a Facebook page

“The workers waited for [the CEO] Colin to no avail as production was continuing at the factory. The breaking point for the workers came after some workers were charged and suspended for liking a Facebook page,” said Ngxathu.

Olwethu Samente, a maintenance worker and the chairperson for the South African Security and Allied Workers Union (SASWU), is one of the people who were charged and suspended. “We were suspended with immediate effect and the charge was for liking a Facebook post of Kora. When we asked them about whether there was a policy that speaks to that they said they don’t have a policy but they just work that way,” said Samente.

Van Heerden confirmed that the company does not have a social media policy but in the case of the Facebook post, they applied common law. “Five or six workers liked a Facebook post that accused their employer of theft and bribery among other things. They were asked to attend a hearing to explain themselves. It is not necessary to have a company policy when common law applies,” said Truda’s CEO.

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Anti-union stance

According to the SASWU, the snacks-making company in Komani has a long history of undermining and colluding with unions. “We have been wanting to join the union for quite some time now. This is the 5th union that has represented workers at the factory. They bribed the previous union and the union leaders told us that they could only represent the workers at the CCMA and not in the workplace,” said Samente.

“They then tried to create a forum of workers and management for us and we rejected that idea because they have a history of bribing worker leaders,” added Samente.

SASWU is affiliated to the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) but is not registered, according to Samente. The CEO pointed this out when asked about his company’s anti-union stance, saying, “we have recognised and worked with unions that follow the LRA…”

Most people from Ezibeleni rely on factories in Queendustria for work. The industrial area in the 90s used to have big manufacturing companies that employed the majority of people from the township. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Strip searching of female employees

Vuyiswa Gontsana, a worker at Truda Foods, told a story of how she lost R900 at work, leading to her co-workers being stripped searched by the supervisor. “I was wearing trackpants at work and I lost R900 and I approached the supervisor… to check where I had lost the money and who picked it up. Instead of checking the camera footage, my co-workers in my department were strip searched… Those with dreadlocks were made to loosen their hair. They were also made to jump up and down with their legs stretched apart to check if they have not hidden the money in their anal area,” said Gontsana.

Nosisa Godlo, who has worked for the company for 11 years, confirmed that that they were asked to take off their clothes and underwear, loosen their hair and “make it like they were dancing with their bums”. “All eight of us were strip-searched,” said the mother of four.

Van Heerden confirmed that there was a staff member who lost money and that the supervisor had taken unwarranted steps to recover the money. “A staff member claimed she had lost money and accused her co-workers. The supervisor decided to do a search of sorts, the extent of which depends on who you talk to. The supervisor received a final warning. This was not and never has been policy and we quickly took action against the supervisor and distanced ourselves from the incident,” he said.

UIF/TERS claim and payment of workers

According to Samente they did not work for four days under lockdown but for most of the lockdown the factory was operational. Being a snack food producer and therefore not deemed essential, the company was closed in April until it obtained an interim order from the Grahamstown High Court to re-open. According to the company’s website, it produces soya mince, porridge and snacks. It did apply for and receive Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme funds from the Department of Labour.

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“They told us that the money we got was more than what they claimed for and that they were gonna take back the money to the department. The second version that they told us was that they were going to divide that money among us. The third version was that they were going to put the money in the company trust fund. We are not sure what is happening. We marched to the Department of Labour to check for our money and this was in April and we were told that we are not in the system. We went again in August and we were registered,” said Samente.

Some of the workers who were suspended by Truda Foods in Queenstown stand at the entrance to the Port Elizabeth High Court where the Labour Court sat last month. Photo: Joseph Chirume/GroundUp

Van Heerden said that they were paid more than ten times what was due to some workers and that they have put the rest of the money into their lawyer’s trust account

“UIF TERS paid us more than ten times what was due for some people and the majority of people didn’t get paid at all. President Ramaphosa made a plea to employers to pay wages to employees even if the UIF money hadn’t come through yet. In that spirit, we paid the majority of people what they should have been paid by UIF. In the meantime we decided to place the amount that we had paid over to employees in trust. We did not want the UIF Fund to turn around to us and say that we had misappropriated their money. Should the Department of Labour call on us to refund the money to UIF TERS then we will pay it to them from the lawyer’s trust account,” said Van Heerden.

Court case

On Wednesday, the suspended workers appeared in the Port Elizabeth Labour Court to oppose the final interdict against them. Since 5 November, they faced a new charge of contempt of court. According to Xolile Mashukuca, the general secretary of SASWU, the contempt of court charge will be heard on 5 February 2021. “Our lawyers and company lawyers have reached an agreement to facilitate a meeting between the workers and the company before the next court appearance,” he said.

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