A swarm of flying ants is threatening to take over the entrance of the SuperSpar grocery store in Montana, north of Pretoria. Inside, with closing time nearing, workers are hurriedly putting items that customers have discarded back in their place.
About 174 workers are employed at the Giannacopoulos Group-owned store. They work an average of 14 hours a day, six days a week, and get their salaries in an envelope each week, according to the labour department, which inspected the store.
It found that the company had made deductions from workers’ wages for transgressions such as coming to work late, not cleaning, customer complaints or customers not writing in the feedback book.
Last June, the department slapped the Giannacopoulos Group with a compliance order of more than R14-million. It cited a gross violation of labour laws and unfair practices by the company at its various Spar stores across four provinces, including the one in Montana.
After failing to comply with the order, the case was referred to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). In February, the dispute body granted the labour department eight arbitration awards against the group, requiring the franchisee to pay nearly R12-million in 14 days.
The company has filed review applications in the labour court against the commission.
In response to Mail & Guardian questions, the group says: “The awards were issued on February 13 but the Giannacopoulos Group only became aware of this event 11 days later by way of a press release published on the website of the department of employment and labour.”
The group further claims that the findings by the labour department were incorrect as it had been discovered that “some of the group’s employees were, in fact, over-paid”.
“Many of the names on the compliance orders and subsequent arbitration awards are also false or not genuine employees, while some are employed at other stores owned by the group,” they add.
Each of the involved parties claims to be on the right side of the law. That will have to be resolved in court, an expensive process.
It is an example of how fraught the cases are that the CCMA has to tackle.
The body is essentially there to resolve disputes, and was created by the Labour Relations Act. It says its own creation “signalled a shift from a highly adversarial model of relations to one based on promoting greater co-operation, industrial peace and social justice”.
Apart from mediating labour disputes, the commission is also tasked with dealing with cases that relate to the new national minimum wage. A year into the introduction of the wage legislation, the commission’s caseload has increased as a result of the disputes that stem from it.
During the 2018-2019 financial year, 193732 cases were referred to the commission. The Spar case represents just one of the 184000 that were presented to the CCMA in January 2020 alone. Of that number, 28000 were cases relating to the national minimum wage.
“These numbers are unsustainable,” says the commission’s director, Cameron Mogajane.
He tells the M&G that the Spar case represents the typical, conflicted relationship between workers and employers in the country.
To try better resolve this kind of conflict, the commission is trying its new revival strategy, Imvuselelo.
At its core is the commission being more proactive when it comes to disputes in workplaces. Using the Giannacopoulos case as an example, he says the dispute could have been prevented if the employer and workers had better understood the new wage, and other labour issues.
“We still have to determine why there is no compliance with the Spar one but what we are sure of is that if we had gone prior to the lodging of the dispute, the [court] case would’ve been prevented,” he says. “What we don’t want is having to deal with it [disputes] in court like we have in the past. We prefer to be involved in it before it happens.”
Mogajane says the CCMA has been allocated R1-billion — R35-million less than it requires — to carry out its mandate over the next three years. “That’s a huge chunk of our budget. There are a number of programmes that we had to cut and my worry is that cutting those proactive interventions limits us in achieving our goals.”
Despite this, he says the commission thinks its new Imvuselelo strategy will allow it to better respond to, and pre-empt conflict in the workplace.
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian
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