Elijah Kodisang* discusses the strike and the difficulties workers organised through labour-brokers experienced at Reckitt Benckiser.
In July 2011, thousands of workers went out on strike demanding higher wages. Amongst them were 400 labour-broker workers working at Reckitt Benckiser who had joined the strike with their own demands. Khanya Journal’s Elijah Kodisang interviewed a group of the workers – Thabang Edwin Mohlala, Julius Mabunda, Philile Mkhawanazi and Given Tshabalala –employed by two labour-broking companies together with their union official, Andile Nyembezi, about their struggle. The union is the General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA).
Before the strike we discovered that the majority of workers employed at Reckitt Benckiser were labour- broker workers. That is, they were organised to work through a labour broker. When the strike started in July 2011, the labour-broker workers formed a committee and joined the strike with their demands. GIWUSA signed up the workers and discussed the formalities of a protected strike with Reckitt Benckiser.
The union proposed a return to work to allow negotiations with the employer to take place. Some workers agreed but the next day the workers were out again and the employer terminated the contract of some of the leaders of the strike. As the strike intensified and workers became more organised, the employer looked for another labour broker. The union then advised workers to return to work on 17th October. But, most strikers were not accepted back at Reckitt Benckiser or placed elsewhere.
The union approached the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). The labour brokers conceded that the workers were their employees and need to be paid. Some dismissed workers won their cases at the CCMA but nine were not reinstated.
How did organise yourselves?
Five workers discussed their suffering at Reckitt Benckiser and wrote a letter to management. Workers then organised going from plant to plant to make demands on the employers. The demands were;
- Maternity leave and the same position guaranteed when returning to work.
- Provident fund – we only had UIF to rely on
- 13th Cheque
- Permanent employment with Reckitt Benckiser as the primary employer as only 13 staff are permanent, out of 500 workers.
- Overtime pay and teatime.
As non-permanent workers, casuals were open to abuse. For instance, one supervisor always demanded sexual favours from women who apply for jobs; and always harasses women. When the company organises Christmas lunches, only permanent workers were taken out, despite all who worked hard for the company. Workers had to buy their own uniforms. But when auditors came, the workers wore the same uniform, regardless of which labour broker they work for.
On the 13th June 2011, we wrote the ALR, CARA, the Production Manager and Directors of Reckitt Benckiser but they failed to respond. We joined the national strike on 11th July 2011 for almost two weeks. During the strike the management sent smses to workers to return to work. During the negotiations the labour brokers offered a 10% increase but did not recognise the union and were not prepared to negotiate any other demands. After a dispute at the CCMA, in August 2011 there was still no agreement.
The strike starts (again)
Even before we could go on strike the shopstewards’ contracts were terminated. On the 23rd September, the strike started again. The police and private security were present during the strike. The employer recruited scabs and sneaked them using bakery trucks that collected them from train stations. The permanent workers trained the scabs to do our work. We became divided and some went back to work.
There were also white security guards who used tear gas against us and shot rubber bullets. A woman selling fruit was hurt. We fought back using stones. They shot at us from within the company premises. The police ensured that we were 500 meters away. We were even denied water. We chose workers to approach community radio stations in Tembisa and Kathorus, to inform the community about the strike.
The company was intent on destroying the strike and wanted to get another labour–broker, Transman in. After three weeks on strike, hunger and rent were pressures. Using sms facilities, the employers threatened workers with termination through sms. After the strike ended, we found artisans running machines. There was chaos in Reckitt Benckiser. They recruited anyone they could find.
We have no rights!
The workers said that they were unsure of what protection they had from the labour laws! ‘We have no rights. It is important for us to continue struggling for our rights.”