Police were called on Pick n Pay workers accused of striking at the retailer’s distribution centre in Cape Town last week. The workers were summarily dismissed, despite their insistence that they never went on strike. The workers say this affected 70 people; the retailer said it was “a small group”.
Workers, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on the condition of anonymity, say that late last Friday night they were told they had been dismissed for striking during the lockdown. The police were called to the distribution centre in Philippi, Cape Town, to remove the workers from the premises.
Photographs and video footage taken by the workers show the police inside the distribution centre on the night in question.
During the lockdown, which has been extended to the end of the month, essential workers have a limited right to strike.
But the workers say they were not striking and were simply attending a meeting called by Pick n Pay labour brokers about an incentive agreement extended to them for continuing to work during the lockdown.
Identical notices from the two labour-broking companies, which were handed to the workers, read: “The distribution of food has been declared by government as an essential service. It is, therefore, UNLAWFUL for any workers at Pick n Pay’s distribution centres to engage in any form of strike. You have been told to get back to work, but you are refusing to do so. This is your last warning.”
The workers said the warning — and the subsequent arrival of the police — came as a surprise to them.
Workers had refused to sign an incentive agreement, in which management offered to pay them a bonus of R500 at the end of April and another R500 at the end of May.
“The management said there will be no negotiations. No discussions. If we want it, we can take it. If we don’t want it, we can leave it. They were not recognising us as essential workers,” one workers said of the meeting.
Another worker said: “We didn’t want to sign. And management called us to the meeting. But they went and left us.”
‘We are not striking’
“About an hour later, they came back and gave us letters saying we are striking. And we said: ‘No. We are not striking. You called us to a meeting and you didn’t say the meeting is adjourned now.’”
According to the worker, they refused to sign the letter that said they had been striking. “After two hours they came back with dismissal letters. And they call law enforcement to take us out of the premises.”
The worker says, because it was late at night, the police gave them a lift home.
The dismissal letter reads: “In light of the current national state of disaster declared and our obligations to continue to render essential services to ensure essential goods are supplied to the nation, your conduct cannot be condoned.”
The lockdown means embarking on protected industrial action is difficult for essential service workers.
The Labour Relations Act 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 M&G tried to contact the cellphone number on the dismissal letter, which workers were instructed to call by no later than 11pm that night if they wished to keep their jobs, but these attempts were ignored. The M&G also tried to contact the national and regional offices of the labour-broking companies, but these calls were also not answered.
Pick n Pay spokesperson Janine Caradonna confirmed that the workers were dismissed for striking and that they were “escorted by a private security company and the SAPS [South African Police Service] were called to maintain public order”.
“The workers were informed repeatedly that food distribution is an essential service during the lockdown, and therefore that any disruption to operations would be treated in a serious light,” Caradonna told the M&G. Pick n Pay has announced that a bonus will be paid to all staff, “including those employed by service providers”, she said.
Caradonna added: “Similar to our stores, all distribution centres continue to have strict hygiene protocols to ensure they are, and remain, a safe place to work. Safety measures at our distribution centres include temperature checks, masks, and frequent hand-washing regimes. Hand sanitiser is also available to all staff.”
Meanwhile, the workers maintain that they did not go on strike. And without work, they fear they will not survive the lockdown.
“We are worried because we have to feed our families. We are the breadwinners in our homes. If we’re at home, we’re not going to get anything,” the second worker said.
He said he thought it was only fair that they would be allowed to negotiate the incentive offer because they were “serving the country”.
“It is no longer just Pick n Pay. We are no longer working for the labour brokers. We are serving the country because the food is needed in the shops. And people need food.”