Not a sweet deal, Mister

Workers who produce and package cupboard favourites like Speckled Eggs and Rascals have decided not to go to work during the 21-day national shutdown, saying the company does not provide an essential service.

Mister Sweet workers, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity, said they are not willing to expose themselves, their families or anyone else to the coronavirus so that the company can keep sweet aisles stocked.

They have been told that the company will operate on a “no work, no pay” basis during the lockdown.

Workers can refuse to work if conditions are not safe.

In early March, the department of employment and labour issued guidelines mandating specific health and safety measures to be taken by employers in light of the pandemic.

According to the Mister Sweet workers, before the lockdown started they demanded clarity on whether the company would continue operating throughout the lockdown.

When management explained that the company had received permits to continue working, workers faced a conundrum: work and risk getting the coronavirus, or stay at home and lose their incomes. Almost half of the workers chose the latter option.

“In the end our lives come first. Our lives come first,” one said. “We can’t risk it. The president said we must stay at home. Because we are not making basic food anyway. It’s just sweets.”

Another said she fears the daily trip on public transport, from Katlehong where she lives to the factory in Germiston, would be enough to expose her to the coronavirus. She said the factory floor is usually busy and could be a hotbed for infection.

“It worries me because I am trying to reduce the Covid-19 spread. Because we also asked them [management] if they are sure that none of the workers already have the virus but they didn’t tell us.”

She said her health is already in a bad state, “so that made me even more scared”.

She later added: “You don’t know how strong someone’s immune system is. And you keep going on trying to please them [management]. Yet they are going to work from home.”

During the first week of the lockdown a message was put up on the notice board, warning that workers who went on work stoppages could be subjected to disciplinary action that could lead to dismissal.

The notice reads: “There is a tendency that employees are prone to putting production at a complete halt, or participating in an unprotected stoppage, when there is a misunderstanding about an issue.”

Mister Sweet will not dismiss anyone for not attending work during the lockdown, the company’s chief executive Alastair Gore told the M&G. “We will however apply our normal code of conduct, and should anyone be found contravening those, disciplinary action would be taken.”

The lockdown means embarking on protected industrial action is difficult for essential service workers.

The Labour Relations Act (LRA) defines essential service workers as those whose services cannot be disrupted, such as paramedics and air traffic controllers. But under the lockdown this category has been expanded to include retail and food service industry workers.

The LRA limits the right to strike for essential workers.

On the first day of the lockdown on March 27, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) released a statement revealing that Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi had intervened when Pick n Pay workers threatened to stop working over health and safety concerns.

Workers at the retail company’s Longmeadow distribution centre in Johannesburg also requested an incentive for those still working during the lockdown. Through the consultation an agreement was reached and people returned to work. 

The CCMA statement ended: “We appeal to all employees across all essential services industries to refrain from any unprotected industrial action during the period of the lockdown.”

The department of employment and labour has encouraged workers to call the police if their bosses are making them work during the lockdown despite them not rendering an essential service.

But for workers in the grey area — those who work for companies that are technically essential under government regulations, but are also producing what are ultimately non-essential items — are forced into choosing between their livelihoods and their health.

In the United States, Amazon workers face a similar predicament. 

The multinational has been deemed essential, but continues to deliver items that are not. This, paired with the crushing demand for deliveries during the lockdown and the allegedly poor working conditions at Amazon warehouses, has provoked outcry by workers. Chris Smalls was fired shortly after he helped organise a work stoppage at the company’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York. 

Gore said Mister Sweet has received the necessary permit to operate. “The company supplies quality snacking and confectionary products to the food retail industry. Confectionary is a sub-sector of the total food category, the production of which is an essential service.”

He said 60% of the workforce is still going to work and this number “is increasing daily”. 

“All employees who are not involved in daily on-site operations are working from home,” Gore said. “All executives involved in the factory day-to-day operations are also working on-site, including myself.”

He said the company has taken a number of measures to protect workers, including giving staff hand sanitiser to use at home.

Meanwhile the workers who have decided to stay home are not sure how they will survive the lockdown, especially if it is extended beyond the 21 days.

Another worker from Katlehong said: “I am worried. I am at home and I usually get paid weekly. This week I was paying off my rent. I had to pay other bills. There is a lot going on and next week I won’t have anything in my bank account. There are two weeks left. I have kids. It’s a problem.”

Despite this he said he is staying at home to protect his family from Covid-19.

“I am living with my two kids and my spouse. So must I take that risk?”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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