‘We sacrifice our families for Clover all year’

Major Mfunda, an experienced forklift driver employed by Clover at its dairy in Port Elizabeth, was fired after he refused to work on all public holidays until 2022. The father of five refused to sign the two-year public holiday roster and was dismissed in February for insubordination and refusing to follow instructions. Mfunda has spent the endless months of lockdown in South Africa unable to find another job to support his children.

Clover workers countrywide belonging to the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa), the majority union at the company, are currently on strike. They want a 10% wage increase, down from the original demand of 16%, and for all workers currently hired through labour brokers to be made permanent employees. Giwusa also wants an end to compulsory work on Sundays and public holidays.

“Contracts of employment say workers will work on public holidays when required. It was not strictly enforced, but from 2019 Clover insisted on exercising that clause. Last year, 104 workers were dismissed for refusing to work on the December public holidays,” said Giwusa general secretary John Appolis.

The Clover contracts for general warehouse workers, including forklift drivers, stipulate an eight-hour day from Monday to Friday and five hours on a Saturday, from 7am until noon. Workers are also required to work on public holidays and any overtime requested by their employer.

This contradicts the terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, which prohibits forced labour. The act states that overtime is not compulsory and must be negotiated with employees, and the employer must take into account that workers need to spend time with their families.

No respite from work

“We are already [working] a six-day week, but Clover says if the company requires it, we must work seven days and public holidays,” said Mfunda, who was employed at Clover for five years before being fired.

“I told them I would not sign such a roster. The management said I am walking on thin ice but they are prepared to throw me a lifeline: I must still sign the roster and for six months should also not disobey them. I said I am not going to take that lifeline and do as you please, because I am not going to work seven days a week. Overtime and public holiday work can only be by mutual agreement.”  

He said he also explained to management that during December workers need public holidays off to relax, visit relatives and entertain family members who have come to visit. “We sacrifice our families all year for Clover. But they said, ‘Either you take it or not, it is an order from above.’ After a disciplinary hearing, they dismissed me for insubordination and misconduct,” Mfunda added.

Mazibulo Luguxa, 34, worked at the Port Elizabeth Clover factory for three years. He was fired on 27 March for refusing to work overtime, which by law is a voluntary option. His dismissal notice from Clover says he was fired for “refusing to carry out a specific, reasonable and legitimate instruction by your team leader [in] that you left your place of work three hours before the end of the shift on Saturday”.

However, Luguxa’s shift is from 7am until noon. He said he left at noon and not three hours early. His case is scheduled to be heard at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration from 4 November.

Luguxa says once the shift ends on a Saturday, Clover managers usually tell the workers to keep working. “When we go to work on Saturday, we have no idea what time we will finish. It is up to the manager. We come in at 7am and leave at 12 midnight sometimes. If he wants us to leave at 5pm, we leave at 5pm. If he wants us to leave at 8pm, we leave at 8pm. Sometimes when he has a personal emergency we will all go home because of his emergency,” Luguxa said.

“We cannot go to a wedding on a Saturday after work because they keep us on for overtime. If your mom is sick, if your child needs you, it is the same thing. You have to stay at work. In December, I got a warning because I had to leave at the end of the shift to fetch my daughter. She is six years old and they refused to allow me but I left,” Luguxa said.

More work, same pay

Appolis says poor working conditions at Clover are part of the reason for the current strike. “There used to be two assistants per van, but Clover imposed a system called ‘one van, one driver assistant’, cutting out one assistant, which means those workers now have an unmanageable workload for the same pay,” Appolis said.

Luguxa says other poor working conditions at Clover include no thermal underwear for workers who spend eight-hour shifts inside a giant fridge, and only one pair of work boots and five pairs of socks every three years. 

“When we asked for warm protective clothing, the managers told us the fridge is not cold. When we asked why then is food kept there that must be stored at under six degrees, they said it was none of our business. We struggle a lot. They even tell us the company does not have any spare money to buy us PPE [personal protective equipment], or even to put heaters in a room for us to warm up during our breaks,” he said.

Clover canteens are allegedly too small to accommodate workers, who have to eat their lunch in allegedly filthy locker rooms, and there is no staff discount on dairy products. “Instead, they give us the expired food which is inedible. Maybe they take us for pigs,” Luguxa said.

He said he had to drop out of his studies at the University of South Africa, where he was studying towards a certificate in economic and management sciences, because Clover management refused to grant him study leave.

Giwusa says its call for a public boycott of Clover has been quite successful, with activists in Gauteng and Cape Town placing stickers on Clover products advertising the strike. 

The union has also called for a boycott of the products of other brands distributed by Clover, including Mageu, Danone, Enterprise, Epic, Kelloggs, Wellington, Red Bull, Crystal, Eskort and Pick n Pay’s no-name brand butter and condensed milk. The union marched on Danone’s head office in Bryanston, Johannesburg, on 29 October. 

Some Gauteng supermarkets have had to place signs on shelves stating: “We regret to inform you that most of the Clover products are out of stock due to an ongoing national strike at the Clover company.”

Neither Clover’s public relations company nor the executive of supply chain, Jacques van Heerden, responded to questions sent on 27 October.

On 31 October, Clover lost an application in the Johannesburg Labour Court to interdict picketing by Giwusa outside their factories.

This article was first published on New Frame

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Anna Majavu
Anna Majavu is a trade unionist and journalist currently completing a PhD in journalism

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