Clover strike: what now?

The strike started off in November as a wage and retrenchment dispute, but has degenerated into other issues, including politicised attempts to involve shareholders: Steven Velthuysen – Clover spokesperson.

FIFI PETERS: Today several workers stood [against] Clover. You’ll remember that the dairy strike at Clover has been going on for almost three months now. Workers there who aren’t striking are fighting [against] what they believe are unfair retrenchments, salary cuts and the introduction of a six-day working week with mandatory work on public holidays.

Just to update us on the situation on the ground at Clover we’re joined by Steven Velthuysen, group manager at Clover for legal and secretarial. Steven, thanks so much for your time. Have I understood the issues correctly that are currently under contention, or are there other areas in which you are not currently seeing eye-to-eye with your workers who are on strike?

STEVEN VELTHUYSEN: Good evening, Fifi. Thank you very much for the opportunity. You are correct. The strike started off in November as a wage and retrenchment dispute – and those are the issues that that the union seems to be disputing. However, we’ve seen that this dispute has now reached a level where they politicise the labour issues by taking aim at our shareholders and disseminating a lot of misinformation in the market.

FIFI PETERS: Like what?

STEVEN VELTHUYSEN: Well, for instance one of the issues that they constantly raise is [the claim] that we are breaching merger conditions that were laid down by the Competition Commission – which is absolutely untrue. We went through a thorough process with the Competition Commission at the time of the merger, [to] which unions were a party, so they also had their insights into the whole Competition Commission issue. There the rationalisation and closure of factories was discussed at length and, like I said, the unions were part of that process. This was ultimately approved by the Competition Commission. They are fully aware of what the process entails and it has absolutely nothing to do with the current [Section] 189 process that took place last year when we decided to restructure our business….

Then there were also issues about the payment of 13th cheques, which was also an issue in dispute. We were always going to pay the 13th cheques, but there were obviously a lot of deductions that needed to be made from them. As you know, the no-work-no-pay policy applies. So there were certain days during November when the workers did not work that had to be deducted from these bonus payments.

FIFI PETERS: You mentioned that the workers were also taking aim at your shareholders now, since 2019, [with] Clover being folded into the broader Milco Group. What are your shareholders, mainly foreign investors in this Milco consortium, saying about the situation currently?

STEVEN VELTHUYSEN: Just to correct you, they are not the only shareholders, they are a majority shoulder; there is also a BEE shareholder and then a few smaller shareholders forming part of the company. It is unfortunate that in a wage and retrenchment dispute the shareholders are now being pulled into this dispute, and it’s becoming an Israel/Palestinian politics issue that is being raised by all the groups.

It’s unfortunate because, as a company, we went through a torrid time with Covid, which was a particularly challenging time for us, and we were fortunate with these shareholders who committed to support us financially during these tough times.

If it weren’t for their support we would have many more retrenchments following these difficult economic trading conditions.

FIFI PETERS: How much has this strike now going on for three months cost you, and what kind of disruptions have you seen in the business as a result of this?

STEVEN VELTHUYSEN: Look, industrial action will always cause a level of disruption. We expected that. Having said that, the strike commenced just before the festive season, and we had to make a determined effort to ensure we protected our supply to the market, and that we didn’t let our customers down – which we’ve done. Our teams have done a remarkable job to ensure that we keep on supplying the market under very difficult circumstances.

FIFI PETERS: Steven, I imagine that everyone wants a resolution to this. You do, the workers do. Just how far are you, do you think, from meeting either the workers or the workers meeting you at the middle ground here, and resolving this and putting this issue to bed?

STEVEN VELTHUYSEN: Fifi, it was widely reported that the government appointed a facilitator to assist in seeking a resolution to this strike. We met last week Sunday. It was a marathon six-hour session between ourselves and the facilitator and the unions. We had to, again, put our position on the table to ensure that government knows exactly what processes were followed, and what is on the table. After those discussions, both parties went back to their respective constituencies, and obviously we hope that the unions took a long, hard look at what was on the table.

Those meetings are continuing tomorrow and we hope that that the offers that we have on the table would put an end to this whole strike. Only time will tell.

FIFI PETERS: What’s your current offer on the table?

STEVEN VELTHUYSEN: We’ve had a dispute regarding the salary increases: we offered 4.5% for the first year, which is calculated from July 1, 2021. And then there are a few austerity measures where we offer the employees an alternative to retrenchment, and not just a straightforward salary cut, which is something that is very important that needs to be clarified.

We’ve offered as an alternative to retrenchments a reduction in salary but, we would also, as a lump sum, pay them the difference between what they currently earn versus the adjusted salary, in order to assist with the adjustment to the new salary levels.

It must be pointed out that the current salary levels offered are still above the market-related salaries out there in the market. A further point, that’s not being communicated correctly: we offered this alternative to more than 1 800 employees, of whom 59% accepted it. It’s only the 41% that rejected it that now dispute this alternative offer on the table.

FIFI PETERS: Steven, I suppose we’ll have to catch up with you guys then just following the meeting that you are having tomorrow to find out where things stand. But thanks so much for your time this evening. Steven Velthuysen is the group manager of legal and secretarial at Clover Group.

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