Stephen Mwelase, 60, worked for four decades as a casual worker at cereal giant Kellogg’s before eventually winning permanent employment this month. But just a week later, he received a retrenchment notice.
Stamping down on the pedals of invisible machines, Mwelase reaches for boxes that aren’t there and places them on to an imaginary conveyor belt. An ever-present Courtleigh cigarette dangles from his fingers while his face curls into a wry, learned smile.
Standing in his sparsely furnished living room in KwaThema on Gauteng’s East Rand, Mwelase is expertly imitating the functions he performed for 39 years on the production line at the red-bricked Kellogg’s manufacturing plant in Springs, where the Corn Flakes that trim South African breakfast tables have been manufactured since 1948.
On August 2, Mwelase won permanent employment at the plant along with the 115 other casual workers previously employed by labour broking behemoth Adcorp Blu. Among other benefits, the change from casual to permanent employment would have resulted in an increase in his wages from R20 to R34 per hour, a 70% gain.
In spite of their victory, in the form of a high court order, all 116 former casual workers were served with retrenchment notices on August 10. The notices follow a legal battle that began when Mwelase and other former Adcorp Blu workers referred a dispute for arbitration to the Benoni CCMA on 25 June.
The Assign Services judgment
At the heart of the dispute was a request that Kellogg’s begin treating the casual workers as permanent employees. Amendments to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) in 2015 guaranteed casual workers employed at a company for three months the same rights as their permanently employed peers.
The landmark Assign Services judgment, handed down by the Constitutional Court on July 26, confirmed that, after three months, casual workers are no longer the employees of labour brokers. Instead, they become the permanent employees of the client company, in Mwelase’s case, Kellogg’s.
But after being refused entry to the Kellogg’s manufacturing plant on July 2, Mwelase and the other casual workers reported to Adcorp Blu’s offices on July 6 through the back gate, as per instructions set out in an SMS seen by New Frame.
Adcorp Blu, which employs more than 60 000 workers and is one of South Africa’s largest labour brokers, informed the workers that Kellogg’s was cancelling its staffing contract with the labour broker.
After 39 years working at Kellogg’s, Mwelase was dismissed.
Less than a month after their dismissal, however, the casual workers staged a stunning fight back, winning permanent employment at Kellogg’s.
With the assistance of the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO), the workers filed an application in the Labour Court seeking their reinstatement at the plant. They argued that, having worked at the factory for longer than three months, Kellogg’s was their sole employer.
Kellogg’s initially appointed ENSafrica, the continent’s largest law firm, to oppose the application. But on the morning the matter was scheduled to go to court, the food-manufacturing behemoth conceded, agreeing to permanently employ the workers at its plant.
The workers demands were consequently made an order of the high court on August 2.
Kellogg’s legal director, Emmanuel Hinson, told New Frame at the time that the Assign Services judgment “brought clarity to the relationship between Kellogg’s and staff supplied by Adcorp Blu”, and that “the parties reached an agreement which gives effect to the judgment”.
But on August 10, all 116 casual workers, including Mwelase, received retrenchment notices from Kellogg’s. In subsequent communications with New Frame, Hinson explained that the Assign Services judgment had, in fact, “clarified which procedures regulate this process.”
The retrenchment notices come towards the end of an internal restructuring at Kellogg’s.
Despite the high court order that made former casual workers permanent, Hinson says the company intends “offering” permanent jobs to 51 out of the 116 former casual workers who are “suitably qualified”, and that “it is not possible to offer full-time positions to all casual workers who were previously deployed through Adcorp Blu”.
Hinson explained that Kellogg’s is legally required to inform “all potentially affected employees” in instances of retrenchments for operational reasons, as well as to extend an “invitation to consult”.
Only the 116 former casual workers received retrenchment notices from Kellogg’s, however, which suggests that they are the only Kellogg’s employees who stand to lose their jobs in the operational retrenchments.
While Hinson claims that “many of the workers that may be affected by the proposed retrenchment joined Adcorp Blu in 2017 to provide part-time and flexible support to Kellogg’s”, New Frame has spoken to numerous casual workers who have worked at the manufacturing plant for decades, including Mwelase; James Faku, 60; and Paulos Mncube, 61.
According to Faku and Mncube, the disparity between casual and permanent workers at Kellogg’s is vast. New Frame has seen numerous payslips of casual workers who earned R20.41 per hour regardless of the work they did, with the the exception of casually employed forklift drivers, who earned R27.69 per hour.
New Frame can confirm that permanent workers at the plant earned between R34 and R94.04 per hour for performing the same work as casual workers. Permanent forklift drivers earned R72.92 per hour.
Mwelase, Faku and Mncube say they received annual bonuses of R300 in 2017. They claim that permanent workers received R12 000 in bonuses. Despite this pay gap between the casual and permanent workers, the three grizzled machine operators claim they were regularly called on to do the jobs of permanent workers.
Faku and Mncube say that they “found” Mwelase at the Kellogg’s factory when they began working there in the early 2000s and mid-1990s, respectively. Mwelase taught them everything they know about operating the plant’s complex machinery.
Reaching for another invisible box in his living room, Mwelase explains that he packed cases of cereal at the plant even before Kellogg’s automated the function in the early 1990s.
He has spent his whole life in KwaThema. He was born there shortly after the township was established in 1951. His home, which belonged to his father, was among the first built by the apartheid government during the forced resettlement of Springs’ black residents from Payneville.
A rich labour history
Mwelase has worked at Kellogg’s for longer than unions have been allowed to protect the plant’s workers.
He began working at the plant in 1979, the same year the Wiehahn Commission recommended that South Africa’s labour unions be unbanned. But it took two years before Kellogg’s officially recognised the Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union (SFAWU) as a majority union at the factory in 1981.
There is a blue-blooded labour history among the permanent workers at Kellogg’s. A young Chris Dlamini began working at the factory in 1977, two years before Mwelase. Dlamini’s potent organisation at the plant eventually resulted in his election as the president of Cosatu’s predecessor, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu).
But according to Mwelase unions have not furthered his cause as a casual worker since their unbanning.