On the first day of the national strike against dairy giant Clover, union member Khilson Manaka died after being run over in Clayville, Johannesburg, allegedly while fleeing police gunfire.
Manaka’s brother Jack, who arrived at the scene shortly after the incident, said: “It is so very painful. He was my younger brother and he had five children. What can I say? The police just started shooting.”
Another worker who did not want to be named said it was late afternoon and the metro police gave them five minutes to disperse before they started firing rubber bullets. The worker said they ran away and the police followed them to Phumulani Mall, and because they were wearing red T-shirts they were easily identified.
At the main road opposite the mall, the worker said police officers were still firing at the group and as Khilson Manaka was trying to flee the bullets across the busy road, he was hit by a car. The protester said the driver drove off without stopping. The workers said they went back to check who the driver was, but the police were still shooting at them.
Khilson Manaka was among the 2 000 Clover workers striking nationwide.
The majority union at the company, the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa), instructed workers to down tools this week after Clover rejected its demand for a 16% wage increase. The company effectively refused to enter into wage negotiations, citing the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on its bottom line.
Giwusa took the company to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which resulted in a 3% offer. Clover later increased its offer to 5% after the union threatened to strike.
Giwusa’s other demands are a minimum wage of R8 000, a R4 500 per month housing subsidy, a R2 500 per month transport allowance, fully funded medical aid, and for Sunday and public holiday work to be paid at double time, among others. The union wants all labour broker workers to be made permanent Clover employees.
The right to strike
Workers went on strike on 13 October 2020 at Clover factories in Gauteng, Cape Town, Polokwane, Bloemfontein and Durban.
Giwusa general secretary John Appolis said that when the strike at the Clayville factory in Midrand, Johannesburg, had ended for the day, the police apparently shot rubber bullets at union members who were already 3km away from the Clover building and heading home.
“There is a very busy road there and workers were waiting at the robots, and the police started to just shoot whoever they saw with a red T-shirt. The comrades were trying to get away, and Khilson was knocked down by a car and killed instantly. Two of the members who were running away were arrested and charged with violence and intimidation.”
Giwusa has laid criminal charges against the police and has reported the matter to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
“We can confirm that a case of culpable homicide was opened for investigation after a 39-year-old man was hit by a motor vehicle on the R562,” said Gauteng police spokesperson Mavela Masondo. He would not confirm that a metro police car had killed Manaka, saying “that forms part of the investigation”. Masondo said the driver of the vehicle had not been arrested. “On culpable homicide, we just open a statement and submit everything to court. There is no immediate arrest,” he said.
Giwusa legal officer Tinovimbanashe Gwenyaya said “we view this as a serious attack by police, not only on our members’ lives but on the right to strike and the right to earn a living wage”, and that the police have no right to break up peaceful pickets at protected strikes. “Two weeks ago, the police did the same thing, illegally dispersing our peaceful picket at Nature’s Garden where Giwusa was on strike. They are just ready to shoot workers. Public order policing is being deployed to quell protected strikes where workers have a legal right to picket,” added Gwenyaya.
Tiny housing allowances
Philimon Chauke, who has worked at Clover for 10 years, said his life became very difficult after he was transferred to the Clayville factory. He could no longer afford the approximately 68km trip to work and was forced to move his family from Soweto to the Winnie Mandela shack settlement in Tembisa, which is about 9km from his workplace.
“After a while, when I realised again that I was not able to make ends meet, I then sent my children and my wife back home to KwaMalamulela in Limpopo,” he said. He rented a tiny room so he could send money home to his family. “To be honest, if you have your family with you, you can’t live in a room.”
Chauke’s rental at the shack settlement is R800 a month, but a decent room goes for about R1 500. It is alleged that the company has been giving employees a monthly housing allowance of R100, which was increased to R140 this year.
“If we get R100 housing allowance and the employers are offering 3%, that 3% is about R300 on top of my salary. If you calculate an increase of R300 and what we are paying for rental, it does not make sense,” said Chauke, comparing the housing allowance to the price of a 5kg chicken braai-pack, which costs the same or more. He does not qualify for a home or car loan.
Too little money, too little help
Assistant driver Daniel Munini, 52, has been a labour broker worker for the past 12 years. He wants to be permanently employed.
Munini lives with his three children in the Winnie Mandela settlement. His wife died two years ago. During good months, he works three days a week or 12 days a month. In bad months, he only works once or twice a week. This affects his self-esteem as a father. “What am I supposed to do with such little money?”
Zodwa Ntuli, 48, has been with the company for 27 years as a merchandiser. Like many of its employees, she started as a casual worker 10 years ago. She spends most of her days packing and promoting Clover products to customers at various supermarkets in Kempton Park.
Her job involves dealing with sometimes disgruntled store managers and managing the product representatives under whom she works. She feels a lot of pressure at work.
“We work with heavy things that damage our backs. Maybe every three months, the company should send a doctor to do a check-up on us. Even the reps that we work under, they don’t care. If you have a problem or [you are] not feeling well, it’s like you are doing that on purpose,” she said.
Unprotected casual workers
At the large Clover factory in Perseverance, Port Elizabeth, most workers said they were part of a group of 100 “casuals” at the factory contracted through labour broker Bidvest and were not a part of the strike.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one worker said: “We work under poor conditions, and we are only paid R20.70 per hour. Where we work it is very cold. It is a large refrigerator, yet we are not provided with a uniform.
“We go around borrowing dark blue cold-room jackets and pants from former workers, and we even have to buy our own masks. The company doesn’t wash these borrowed clothes, and there is no time between shifts for us to wash our only ‘uniform’. We don’t have any other uniform, so we can’t wash it for months.”
A second worker said: “It was worse during the Covid-19 outbreak. There were infected workers at Clover and we were called to a staff meeting and told if one of us were to be infected, we must take 14 days unpaid leave.
“We told management that we won’t work if we are not tested, and we were told that if we did not want to work, we could leave. We don’t even have a union to fight for us. When we do fight for our rights, we are shown the gate.”
The cost of uncertainty
Milco SA, which Israeli firm The Central Bottling Company owns, purchased Clover in 2019. Giwusa and the minority union at Clover, the Food and Allied Workers Union, objected to the takeover at the time. The unions said that a company “involved in land theft, human rights abuses, violations of international humanitarian law and supports apartheid practices should not be allowed to operate freely and legitimately in South Africa where we are still attempting to addresses the destructive consequences of apartheid on our people”.
Giwusa and Palestine solidarity groups have now approached the courts for a judicial review of the Competition Commission’s approval for the takeover. And Giwusa plans to march on the Israeli Embassy.
When asked about the strike, Clover chief executive Johann Vorster said: “Clover’s business has been subject to a difficult trading cycle for a number of years, with costs generally rising above inflation and consumer spending having been negatively impacted by poor economic growth and the increase in unemployment. Covid-19 has added to this pressure and created much uncertainty, specifically around the economic outlook.”
Vorster said that even though Clover was an essential service that operated throughout the coronavirus lockdown, additional expenses were incurred, including to “protect employees and other stakeholders, [which] came at a significant cost”.
He added: “Clover’s financial position has also been impacted by costs related to inefficiencies caused by changes in demand and supply patterns.”
When asked how much Clover had spent on protecting employees and if Vorster could explain more about how economic uncertainty affected the sale of dairy products, Vorster did not respond.
Giwusa met with the representatives of several activist groups via Zoom on 14 October to build solidarity to support the workers.
The union has called for a public boycott of Clover products from 16 October, asking members of the public to remove Clover products from shelves and stack them in trolleys in supermarket aisles. Appolis said EFF members in Ivory Park and Tembisa have already visited supermarkets in their areas to ask them to stop stocking Clover products.