Workers can't eat Massmart promises

A retrenched Massmart employee has been sent from pillar to post. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A retrenched Massmart employee has been sent from pillar to post. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A class outing is being planned at the East Rand primary school in the informal settlement where Kgoshi Manamela* lives with his wife and three children. The grade six pupils will be spending a day at the Pretoria Zoo.

Manamela’s daughter Sazi (11), a slight girl with keen eyes and a ready smile, has been looking forward to the trip. But the school requires that each pupil pay R150 in order to attend.

“I had to tell her she can’t go.
I don’t have the money,” he said. He cradles his youngest son (3), on his lap as he talks. “She says, ‘But it’s educational, Daddy!’ She doesn’t understand. I told her, ‘I am sorry but I simply can’t’.”

Four years ago, Manamela lost his job as a hi tech salesperson in a Massmart-owned Game store on the East Rand. He had spent the past 11 years working his way up to the position, starting in 1999 as a casual nightshift worker packing stock.

“I was very much happy in that role,” Manamela said of the job he lost, which allowed him to earn commission on sales he made.

He was one of 503 Massmart workers retrenched in 2010 as part of the company’s efforts to streamline its supply chain.

The next year, the Competition Appeal Court made certain stipulations before approving United States-based retail giant Walmart’s takeover of Massmart. Among them was the instruction that the 503 employees who had been laid off should be reinstated.

But, three years later, Manamela and more than 200 others remain unemployed.

The situation has become shrouded with misunderstanding, disillusionment and accusations of broken promises. Massmart insists that it is co-operating with the Competition Commission’s requirements despite missing several deadlines originally agreed upon.

The union representing the employees is indignant.

And the now desperately poor former employees have begun to accuse both parties of pursuing their own interests at their expense.

“The way I view reinstatement is that you go back to where you used to work as if nothing happened,” said Themba Baloyi*, a burly father of four with a deep belly laugh.

He joined Massmart in 1986 as a casual trolley porter and worked his way up the ranks. In 2010, when he was informed of his retrenchment, Baloyi was a permanent distribution supervisor for the company.

Brian Leroni, the Massmart group corporate affairs executive, said that the 2010 retrenchments such as Baloyi’s were “entirely avoidable”.

“All affected employees were asked to apply for alternative positions that were available at that time,” Leroni said. “They chose not to do so.”

New position
All the new offers were made at the same rate of pay and on equivalent terms and conditions, he said.

But Baloyi said he was offered a new position as a distribution assistant – a role he had occupied years before being promoted. It came with a lower salary.

“I’m a responsible man. My kids come first,” he said. “I would have even taken the job with a lower title. But, due to this lower salary, I decided not to.”

Some time later, Baloyi received a large sum of money in his bank account, which he understood to be a retrenchment payout and a disbursement on some company shares he had been given years before.

“I never signed any documents that said that I’m retrenched,” he said. “I never agreed to anything.”

Leroni said that the process associated with the retrenchments went to arbitration at the time. It was “upheld as being fair and procedural,” he said.

Nevertheless, the 2011 Competition Appeal Court ruling meant that all the laid-off workers, whether fairly dismissed or not, were led to expect that they would get their jobs back. But the reinstatement process, which was meant to begin in June 2012, has changed and dragged on for two years, leading to increasingly bitter disappointment for most.

Too far to travel
Former employees complained that they received offers to fill new roles at different stores and branches, some of which required them to travel too far for the income to be viable. Some said they were turned away for reporting to the wrong branch or “not being on the list”.

In response to ongoing complaints about the process, Massmart last year drew up a “remedial plan” with new timelines. This was accepted by the Competition Commission in December but Massmart failed to meet the April 1 deadline set for the next tranche of workers to return to work.

“My children were so excited,” Baloyi said. “They said ‘Yay! Daddy’s going back to work on 1 April!’

“It was so painful when the day came and they asked me ‘Why aren’t you going back to work?’?”

The deputy general secretary of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union (Saccawu), Mduduzi Mbongwe, said that “delays that could not have been anticipated” meant that the new date for people to return to work had to be moved from April to May 5. It is expected that about 80 employees will recommence work on that day. Baloyi and Manamela are not among them.

And there will be other lengthy matters to resolve before the remaining employees can hope for any change in their fates. After May 5, Massmart will continue to dispute the reinstatement of another 122 employees.

‘Numerous unforeseen delays’
According to the company, it has already reinstated or “otherwise resolved the reinstatement” of 293 employees.

The Competition Commission said that the “numerous unforeseen delays” had been caused by “all of the stakeholders involved”. Nevertheless, the remedial plan was under way, it said.

Because of this, Massmart’s departure from its deadlines could “not be seen as a breach of the condition imposed by the Competition Appeals Court”.

Mbongwe, who confirmed that Saccawu was involved in the implementation of the remedial plan, said that he “hopes” that the end is in sight. “It has been a very long process,” he said.

For Baloyi and Manamela, who have both applied for many other jobs, hope is starting to run thin, and cash is running even thinner.

Every few days, Manamela walks the 8km round trip to a garage shop where he buys R20 of electricity. His wife, Bethany, rises at 4am and uses the electricity to bake queen cakes, biscuits and vetkoek, which they sell in the streets for R1 or R2, depending on the item.

With winter approaching and their youngest child sick, the electricity money is going faster than normal.

“I have to run a heater at night and the children want tea,” Manamela said. He has not paid any bills for his municipal home, water or waste removal for three years.

Baloyi has reined in his appetite. “I eat once a day,” he said. “When the children ask me if I want something, I tell them I will just take tea.

“The painful part is when it comes to the 25th of the month and I have nothing to offer my family,” he said. “I promise them I will buy them the things they need but, honestly, I don’t know when.”

* Interviewees asked that their names be changed for fear of victimisation

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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