Shoprite strikers back at work

About 300 Malawian employees of the South African supermarket chain Shoprite Trading Limited have returned to work after their two-week strike failed to win any concessions from the company.

The workers, who were striking in support of their demand for better wages, suspended the strike after the company advertised in the local press for workers to replace them.

The workers, who claim they are paid as little as K400 (about R23) a week, were demanding a 400% wage increase, having rejected the 12% wage increase offered by the Shoprite management. The strikers also demanded the removal of Shoprite general manager Sven Eckoff and called for better working conditions.

The general public was sympathetic to the strikers.

One consumer, Jonathan Kazembe, commented: “You do not expect these workers to remain silent when they are given very little pay. Shoprite deserves this.”

Most of the workers have to walk home at night after work, as they cannot afford transport. Those with money wait for local minibuses to take them back to their homes, some five or six kilometres away.

A 32-year-old woman worker, who lives in Kawale Township and asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said: “Imagine, I knock off around 7pm and I stay far away from town. Yet I am not given any transport. In addition, I receive very little pay and I have to look after four children.” She said management was to blame for the strike because it “never wanted to listen to the workers’ grievances”.

On Monday last week, Shoprite management approached the high court for an order to stop the strike, which began on October 29. The order was granted and the company also issued an ultimatum to the workers to resume work or lose their jobs. They ignored the ultimatum and were dismissed.

The strikers obtained an order from the high court, reinstating them.

Lawyer for the employees, Mwiza Nkhata, told the local media that the threat by Shoprite to fire the workers was “unprocedural”.

The Malawian Ministry of Labour and the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions were due to hold talks with company representatives from South Africa (who were due to have arrived earlier this week.)

When Shoprite advertised in the local press last weekend for workers to replace strikers, hundreds of Malawians applied.

The large number of people who responded to Shoprite’s advertisement is indicative of how desperate many Malawians are. Many need jobs, which the government has promised to create for them. An increasing number are prepared to take any job, however poorly paid.

Greg Moran, a South African human rights consultant working in Malawi, said it appeared that the country’s former president, Bakili Muluzi, had encouraged foreign investment with the promise of cheap labour.

“But even by Malawian standards this is exploitative. This company could never get away with this in South Africa. I wonder if there is a manner in which the South African government can ensure that South African companies do not exploit workers when they go outside the country,” Moran asked.

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