More than 200 vulnerable workers working at the Pick ‘n Pay distribution centre in Philippi are currently engaged in a labour dispute with four labour broker companies over their current working conditions. The workers, supported by their labour adviser Nazeema Mohamed, are challenging Pick n Pay and the labour brokers with Mohamed indicating that they would consider taking the matter as far as the Constitutional Court if they find the outcome of the case at the CCMA to be unjust and out of sync with the constitution of the country.
The workers are not directly affiliated to any trade union and as such contacted the Casual Workers Advice Office. Ighsaan Schroeder, the director of the Casual Workers Advice Office then requested Mohamed’s services with the case. Since then, she has had various meetings with all 200 workers on an open field near the centre, listening to their grievances. Mohamed says she was “quite taken aback” when she heard what the workers had to say.
Briefly explaining what the workers and herself find concerning, Mohamed highlighted what at best seems to be a nonsensical situation the workers at the distribution centre are faced with, given their precarious and vulnerable working conditions.
“The main issue, the contentious issue to me, relates to the fact that there are four labour brokers involved at the distribution centre where the workers are working…most of the workers have 10, 12 and 7 year service lengths, it’s not like they’re working for a month or two. They’re working there for many years but are not employed by Pick n Pay despite working for Pick n Pay and at Pick n Pay’s distribution centre. Sometimes they even have to wear badges or sign documentation claiming they are Pick n Pay workers and then those documents get destroyed thereafter.
From a legal point, they [Pick n Pay] are covering themselves by deeming the workers to be employed by labour brokers…”
The workers at the distribution centre have several grievances, all of which they hope will be addressed through the CCMA. Their grievances include the claim that they don’t have written contracts or are simply not provided with copies thereof, their working hours, unequal pay for equal work and many others. The above-mentioned grievances are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Mohamed.
“There’s a range of issues the CCMA needs to assist with…Unfortunately and sadly, the workers are also being paid very low wages so technically in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, they are regarded as vulnerable workers,” she said.
Mohamed explained that although labour brokering is not illegal in South Africa yet, she does consider it to be a form of modern day slavery due to its hindering of the protection of vulnerable workers in the South African labour force. This sentiment is shared by many academics and activists worldwide and is arguably an issue in South Africa due to ineffective, or insufficient, labour laws governing the labour brokering industry combined with poor enforcement.
“It takes away any real employment relationship between yourself as an employee and your employer,” said Mohamed before adding that the workers “want the CCMA to rule that Pick n Pay is actually the employer.”
“We want to have the CMMA listen to our argument, rule in line with the constitution and rule that these workers are working for Pick n Pay because then they can have contracts, benefits, leave and all those arrangements which can be properly put in place.”
“We hope that other trade unions will also step up and assist because I think another decision, and a harsher decision, will be in the interest of most working people in the country. The labour broking issue needs to be brought to a head and the issue needs to end.”
There are additional disputes with regard to the organisation of the case at the CCMA, but the arbitration is likely to proceed in late January, 2020.
In a statement, Pick ‘n Pay declined to comment on the merits of the case.
“Our commitment is to ensure that everyone who works in our business – including in our distribution centres – is treated legally and fairly and has an opportunity to progress in their careers. We are unable to discuss further details until the CCMA has given its ruling,” the company stated.