- Published: Monday, 10 April 2017 09:19
- Written by Lynford Dor
On 28 February, 2017, 58 workers who make baked goods for Pick ‘n Pay embarked on a protected strike, demanding to be made permanent Pick ‘n Pay workers, wages of R10 000 per month and an end to victimisation by the company. Although the strike is connected to one of the country’s biggest retail giants, barely anyone in the public has even heard about it. This, the striking workers argue, is largely because they have been rendered invisible by Pick ‘n Pay’s cynical use of a chain of third-party employers called Assist Bakeries.
On the first day of the strike the management brought in scab labourers and gained a court interdict to prevent the strikers from picketing anywhere within view of the factory premises. Production continued, and life continued almost as if they did not exist. But as the strike continues on, this group of workers are fighting to be seen and heard.
The story that the striking workers tell is one that looks to expose the questionable labour practices of Pick ‘n Pay — a company with a squeaky-clean public image. Workers claim that Pick ‘n Pay uses supposedly independent companies as a front to carry out its dirty work. But this also appears to be a story belonging to millions of other precarious workers in South Africa that have been rendered invisible, expendable and left without access to basic rights due to the growth of different forms of third-party employment. These are workers who have been ignored by the trade union movement and left to organise themselves.
The Assist Bakery project
This particular story begins in 2004, when Pick ‘n Pay launched the Support Bakery Enterprise Development Project. As the link suggests, the project was set up to satisfy one of Pick ‘n Pay’s four founding pillars: “Corporate Social Responsibility”. The idea behind the project seems to have been to create employment, to provide a platform for skills development and to encourage and develop entrepreneurship. This forms part of Pick ‘n Pay’s contribution towards Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and towards promoting the growth of Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs). The workers on strike, however, insist that in reality this project mainly serves to supply Pick ‘n Pay with cheap labour and allows them to feign ignorance and avoid responsibility when issues around poor employment conditions arise.
Today the “independent companies” that form part of this empowerment project are each called “Assist Bakery” with a number on the end. For instance, the workers that are out on strike are employees of the Assists numbered 50, 60, 70 and 115. Additionally, workers from Assist 80 have joined in on a secondary strike. These workers all work in the same factory in Isando on the East Rand of Johannesburg — a factory setup by Pick ‘n Pay itself. They make the same or similar products as bakery workers in the Pick-n-Pay branches, yet they report to a range of different employers. All the Assist Bakeries only supply products to Pick ‘n Pay.
Worker organising at Assist Bakeries and management’s victimisation
Workers at the Assist Bakeries were previously unorganised. Workers say that unions such as SACCAWU, that have organised Pick ‘n Pay workers for years, did not attempt to organise them at all. In 2014 a worker at one of the Assists got hold of a pamphlet from an organisation called the Casual Workers Advice Office alerting labour broker workers to the 2014 Labour Relations Act (LRA) amendments that afforded them new rights under Section 198. This new amendment stipulates that labour broker workers should be employed by the client company after 3 months of employment and that those workers should be employed under the same conditions as the permanent workers of the client company. Workers at Assist believed that they did indeed work under a labour broker. Once workers at Assist became aware of these rights they started organising themselves. Management, they argue, responded with high levels of victimisation.
In early 2016 Assist workers organised a Workers Committee to represent them in negotiations with management. One strike leader, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation, noted that of the twenty or so workers on the Committee, management found ways to retrench about two thirds. Two were also dismissed.
Corporate social responsibility or a devious case of disguised employment?
In March 2016 two workers took both Pick ‘n Pay and Assist Bakeries to the CCMA to report a case of unfair dismissal by the latter. One of them was the very same worker who originally found the CWAO pamphlet and began the process of worker organising at the factory in Isando. In the Arbitration Award the CCMA commissioner ruled that Pick ‘n Pay had to take responsibility as a co-employer of the two workers in question. In this Award the commissioner noted that:
“Assist Bakery is not an independent entity but subservient to Pick ‘n Pay and conducted its business at the bidding of the latter”
“the reality of the facts is that there is an employment relationship between Pick-n-Pay and the Applicants [the two workers] despite the agreement [the “Empowerment Agreement” between PnP and Assist Bakeries] stipulating otherwise. One can thus deduce that the agreement was concluded to conceal the identity of the true employer to thereby avoid the application of the Act [the LRA].” [my additions in brackets]
The commissioner did not outrightly identify Assist Bakery as a labour broker but did suggest that the relationship between Assist and Pick ‘n Pay is a clear case of disguised employment. In light of this award, workers at Assist applied to the CCMA in their numbers in the belief that they too would be deemed to be employees of Pick ‘n Pay and in the hope that they could rid themselves of the Assist management. Assist Bakeries and Pick ‘n Pay have since taken this Award on review to the Labour Court.
Given the chance to respond to the claims and demands made by striking workers, Pick ‘n Pay’s David North (Group Executive, Strategy and Corporate Affairs) reiterated that the Assist Bakery project is about empowerment and not exploitation. He did not acknowledge the workers’ demands to be made permanent and his comment about employees being remunerated in accordance with the LRA is curious, since the LRA does not deal with wages:
This issue is a wage dispute between employees of independent bakeries and their employers, who are bakers supplying Pick n Pay. Our facility in Isando houses an empowerment project which has created new, independent entrepreneurs providing wholesale bakery products to Pick n Pay. As independent suppliers, they are not labour brokers, nor are there any labour brokers involved in this project. This BEE project has been successful in transferring skills and in business training for entrepreneurs. All employees are remunerated by their employers strictly in accordance with the Labour Relations Act.
Dressing a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
This strike has brought to our attention what can at best be described as a messy situation. Pick ‘n Pay insist that through this project they are delivering a social good, while the workers who are meant to be some of the beneficiaries of the project insist that they are being exploited.
In the end it is hard to look past the fact that these workers all work in the same factory built by Pick ‘n Pay, they do the same or similar jobs as some of Pick ‘n Pay’s permanent staff, yet they report to a range of different employers. Furthermore, the companies they work for all share the same name (bar the number on the end) and all supply the same client – Pick n Pay.
This is but one example of the calculated mess that has come to define the labour market in South Africa. Various forms of third-party employment have divided workers largely as a means to undermine worker organising. This ensures invisibility of cheap labour and lays the basis for super profits for capital. Trade unions contribute to the problem by going out of their way to ignore these types of workers. But after holding out for six weeks already, these bakery workers are demonstrating that it is still possible to organise and fight under such trying conditions.
Written by: Lynford Dor. Former football writer, currently volunteering at the Casual Workers Advice Office and interning at SA History Online