FIFI PETERS: Last Friday Clover and the unions representing the workers who have been on strike at the company since November last year were supposed to have had a meeting. What also happened is that Clover got an interdict from the labour court to stop striking workers from intimidating those who didn’t wish to strike. The interdict was also intended to protect the company from having its property damaged, having experienced the incitement of violent behaviour on the social media platforms of unions, allegedly.
But we’ve got Vuka Chonco, the deputy general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union joining the Market Update just to let us know how things are going. Vuka, thanks so much for your time, sir. That meeting last Friday – did it go ahead and, if so, what was discussed?
VUKA CHONCO: Good afternoon and good afternoon to the listeners. The meeting did take place last Friday, but I must say that this is a second meeting which had the same character of being a meeting that does not yield any good results. So it’s more a waste of time than anything else.
What was happening during this meeting was that the business wanted to explain the reasons behind why they have this programme that is contributing to job losses, factory closures, and so forth, including cutting the salaries of workers by 20 to 30% – depending on your salary scale.
What we then posed to the business was, one: is the business amenable to come up with a programme that, should I say, will reshape the same programme, as long as the programme will not contribute to job losses and the closure of factories, on the basis that we don’t want to increase unemployment in the country. We also don’t want to take away the manufacturing capacity of this biggest dairy company outside our country.
They did not positively respond to this. They refused. They said this was the only programme they had.
We also sponsored a question to say, are they amenable to coming up now with a separate programme, where government will be involved to discuss anything that will be offered as an alternative, as long as we’ll not be realising job losses and factory closures. They again refused.
We then said, okay, we don’t have information to continuously counteract this programme, because it does not have full details. Of course, just as much, we were only told that they’re losing about R900 million a year; but we can’t comprehend why they’re cutting salaries, because cutting salaries is amounting to about R56 million a year. So the labourers want to know why they are cutting salaries to an amount that is way less than what they are losing? How did they identify this as a way of saving, because it does not contribute to what they hope to achieve. All these questions were not answered.
We then said they should rather give us – that’s how the meeting was closed on Friday. They should go back to their principals.
One, they must give us full information of access to the salary packages of all the executive, all senior management, everyone, so we know at which plan did they decide to identify [the cuts]. As you know, the Labour Relations Act is not prescriptive as to whom should be identified, whose salary should be cut, and so forth. We want to know all those things.
FIFI PETERS: Vuka, just a quick one. We had management on the show last week, and a lot of what was said was Covid-19 has had a very negative impact on quite a number of businesses, and the restructuring that was taking place was as a result of making the business more viable to ensure that a lot more jobs could be retained, because if a company’s not making money, how does it continue to employ those currently in its employ?
The company has told you that. Do you not understand, then, why some of the difficult decisions that are being taken are being taken?
VUKA CHONCO: We don’t agree with a business that says, ‘Let’s cut jobs today and then we’ll re-employ in future’. We want jobs today. We want to take our children to school today, so we don’t want to wait for bosses while they’re making profits in future. We don’t agree with this programme.
The second part that I wanted to mention was also that we discussed with them to say we don’t agree with their version here. We also said to them, they must go and take workers back to work, so that we can accord the process of the principal in this case, the minister on the part of government, the employer and us – in particular the CEO on the part of the employer. They we can begin to engage because, as it is, the situation is quite dire. They don’t agree also with that.
So hiding behind the economy that is not doing well is more of an excuse than anything else because how do you then later bring back the economy with a sound financial position as a business that would be better contributing to such, if all their factories are closed. We need also a factory that is working, that will contribute to the same economy that they’re using as an excuse. So to close factories and say, ‘In future you’ll have jobs – in what way, because factories will be closed? And so we don’t agree.
FIFI PETERS: Vuka, this strike has been going on for some time. How have the workers been surviving?
VUKA CHONCO: It’s extremely difficult, I must say, because they have no salaries. But at the same time these are workers who are openly saying they will never agree to take any salary cut because that would be reversing a situation of about 20 years ago, a salary of 20 years ago, which can’t be the case.
Secondly, you can’t also claim to have a job where your salary, your benefits and so on have been removed, and then hope to say, ‘this is how we have survived’. That is why we’ve been intensifying our strike. Tomorrow we’re also having a … answers where we’re inviting all working-class formations, so that we can craft a programme that will be stronger than any programme we had before, so that we can put more effort and even more … to listen to our own demands of taking workers back to work unconditionally.
FIFI PETERS: One of the things that have been reported is the fact that the union is saying that Clover and Milko South Africa have essentially been in breach of the Competition Commission’s recommendations that allowed the deal for the formation of the Milko Consortium to go ahead, in that one of the rules or one of the requirements was that retrenchments did not take place. Of course Clover came on the show to say that it hadn’t been in breach of this recommendation.
I see that you are in talks with the Competition Commission to investigate this matter. What have they said?
VUKA CHONCO: Of course the minister has made the commitment to have sanctioned … that we will follow the investigation. But our argument with regard to the existence of the Milko Consortium that bought Clover is that they made a commitment to make sure that there will not be job losses for a period of three years. As we speak, we have lost more than 2 000 jobs before even that three-year ends.
Secondly, they made a commitment of investing in the country, and they said they are investing, therefore we will have to benefit as a country. The closure of companies is the opposite of that. All this happened before this three years.
They made another commitment to say they will create about 550 jobs. We agreed – look where we are now. We have lost three times the number that they gave us. So our belief therefore is that the existence of the Milko Consortium is actually the opposite of the development of our country, on the basis of what we are doing, which is the closure of factories, rating, unemployment – which is not what they thoroughly committed at the time. That is why the investigation is going on.
But just as much we’re also [presenting] an argument to the government to say, “You ought not to have agreed to work with the people, because it’s one part that is an apparent apartheid state. It’s another that the commitment they are making opposes the very same development of our country.
The fact that the government has a standing pro-Palestinian campaign against the apartheid-era state, of which its involvement of pro-Palestinians should be the basis upon which the South African government disengages itself from doing business with Israel. That is our argument to this fact.
FIFI PETERS: Vuka, we’ll have to leave it there for now, sir. Thanks so much for joining the show.
Vuka Chonco is the deputy general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union. It’s very difficult, I’m sure, to have lost your job over this period, but of course one cannot ignore the pandemic and the effects it has had on quite a number of industries and the number of people who have also unfortunately lost their jobs as a result. We will follow that story. Hopefully there’ll be a speedy resolution.
Listen/read: Clover spokesperson Steven Velthuysen discusses the Clover strike (January 27, 2022) – read the transcript here