Retrenched poultry workers can’t spread their wings

Fragile: Bonginkosi Ndlela began growing vegetables to earn money after he was retrenched. (Rogan Ward)

Fragile: Bonginkosi Ndlela began growing vegetables to earn money after he was retrenched. (Rogan Ward)

A year after they were retrenched by Rainbow Chickens at the height of the dumped-chicken crisis, life is bleak for the bulk of the 1 300 workers who lost their jobs.

The RCL Foods chicken division, owners of the KwaZulu-Natal farms at Hammarsdale, posted a profit last month, a significant turnaround on the previous year’s losses of R30-million a month. But most of the workers whose loss of work made those profits possible are still jobless.

Some hope the change in the local economy from agriculture and textiles to a logistics hub for the Durban harbour will turn into jobs.  Others have given up, believing that they are too old to get new work.

Bonginkosi Ndlela, 61, worked at RCL for 37 years on the packaging line. He lost his job last January. The company put 25 of its farms up for sale and closed down its P2 production unit, where Ndlela worked.

“It is hard for me to get a job at my age,” Ndlela said last week. “I have to try and come up with some other way to earn some money. I’m too young to get a pension.”

He got seeds and equipment from a programme funded by RCL and began growing vegetables to feed his family and to earn money.

Godfrey Mtshali, 58, a former human resources officer who lives in south Durban, spends his days in the library “trying to put things together”. His three children were at university when he was retrenched. The first two completed their studies “somehow”.

“My last-born is in his last year of varsity and I’m trying to see to that now. It’s hard. To be honest with you, I don’t know what I would be doing if my wife didn’t have a job.”

Mtshali has applied for several jobs in the industrial relations field but “companies are under pressure because the economy is bad”. He’s been shortlisted by RCL for contract work. Nothing has been forthcoming.

“I get up and go to the beach and go for a walk. Then I bath and go to the library. I sit and try and put something together,” Mtshali said.

Mtshali, who worked at RCL for 18 years, said he was more fortunate than most of his colleagues in that he has a wife who works.

“About 90% of those who were laid off were the only breadwinners at home. I don’t know how they are surviving right now. There are those who are sleeping hungry now.”

He said many of his colleagues have moved back to the rural areas they came from because they could no longer afford to live in Hammarsdale. Those who have found work got jobs at Mr Price and other companies that moved into the first of a series of logistics parks opening in the area.

The eThekwini municipality has identified Hammarsdale for a mixed-income housing development and a logistics hub along the new road to be built between the Durban harbour and Camperdown, and warehouses are springing up in the area. But very few new jobs are being generated to offset the effect of the RCL layoffs.

[RCL Foods Scott Pitman says chicken dumping is still a threat (Rogan Ward)]

Mtshali said he feared for his former colleagues’ jobs in the light of the listeriosis outbreak, which has led RCL to recall products.

RCL chief executive Scott Pitman said there was no link between the listeriosis outbreak and any RCL production facility.

He said the recovery generated by production cuts and retrenchments have turned the company’s fortunes around, along with lower feed prices. But the industry remained “fragile” and intervention was needed to prevent future job losses in the face of continued dumping.

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