Stephen Mwelase’s home is scant. The only provisions alongside the few pieces of cutlery and crockery in his kitchen are an almost-empty jar of peanut butter and three tubs of cereal produced at the Kellogg’s factory in which he has spent most of his working life: Corn Flakes, All Bran and Strawberry Pops.
Mwelase, 60, started working at Kellogg’s in 1979, operating as well as training younger staff to use the machinery at the cereal giant’s Springs plant. Despite his 40 years of experience, Mwelase was dismissed, along with eight of his colleagues, late yesterday afternoon.
Kellogg’s head of external relations Zandile Mposelwa confirmed that one further worker would also be dismissed. The dismissals follow a protracted battle in which the company sought to place 10 of its workers in jobs outside of the factory.
17 January 2019: Containers of Kellogg’s cereal stored in Steven Mwelase’s kitchen. For decades he operated and trained others to use the machinery that makes these foodstuffs.
Struggle to be permanent
Mwelase and the other dismissed workers were among 116 former casual workers at the plant who brought a successful application against Kellogg’s in the Johannesburg labour court in 2018 to compel the company to accept them as permanent employees.
This was after the Constitutional Court’s landmark Assign Services judgment confirmed that casual workers become the permanent employees of a company once they have worked there through a labour broker for longer than three months. Before their victory, Mwelase and his colleagues had been considered casual workers, some of them for decades.
Earlier coverage: The hidden cost of Corn Flakes
Several of the newly permanent workers — Mwelase among them — spent the next few months in negotiations with Kellogg’s to compel the company to pay them the same hourly rate it was paying its other employees. This resulted in some of the workers receiving an increase; Mwelase’s rate was increased to R72 an hour from R34 an hour.
But the battle unfolding between Kellogg’s and its former casual workers did not end there. After agreeing to the wage increases, Kellogg’s issued several retrenchment notices, which drove the battle to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
While both parties agreed on the “operational retrenchment” of 21 workers who had worked at the company for the shortest time, Kellogg’s and the workers emerged with conflicting understandings of the outcome when these consultations concluded in November 2018, in spite of Mposelwa telling New Frame that “all parties reached consensus”.
Mposelwa, arguing that “permanent positions available in the plant are limited”, said that Kellogg’s sought to place 10 workers in “positions that were available in other departments within the company”.
For the workers, who never agreed to be moved out of the factory and understood the job placements to be within the factory, however, the new positions were an insult.
Morena Mathebula, 35, said at the time that the conflict between the workers and Kellogg’s had become “personal”, adding that he and his colleagues’ placement outside the factory was punishment for referring earlier disputes to the CCMA and speaking to the media.
Kellogg’s had earlier instructed the workers to report for training in their new jobs on the morning of 15 January. Convinced of the illegitimacy of the company’s efforts, the workers did not report for training, meeting and strategising a way forward in living rooms and backyards around KwaThema instead.
On the afternoon of 23 January, five days after Mposelwa told New Frame that Kellogg’s felt “confident that we have found suitable opportunities”, the company dismissed the workers, citing their refusal to attend training as incompatible with its operational requirements.
17 January 2019: Morena Mathebula moved his family from Boksburg to Springs to be closer to the Kellogg’s factory where he was working. This week, Kellogg’s dismissed him and nine other workers.
Mwelase, who has grave, narrow eyes and a roguish grin, had interrupted an ongoing debate at one of the KwaThema meetings a few days earlier (he is in the habit of breaking his long, attentive silences quite suddenly to offer piercing observations) to suggest that Kellogg’s was trying to force out workers who had resisted the company and take the factory “back to cheap labour”.
“I don’t know,” laughed Mwelase, throwing his arms out sardonically when New Frame asked what his responsibilities would have been in the new role in which Kellogg’s tried to place him, as a sales merchandiser at Savemoor Cash & Carry. “I have never done it.”
Mathebula was equally derisive of the company’s attempts to relocate him. Among the many tasks he performed on the factory floor (“There is not a machine you can show me in the factory that I don’t know how to operate.”) was the most feared: cooking. Workers abhor the dangers of operating the giant, rotating steam oven that cooks raw maize at temperatures of up to 180°C.
Related article: Dispossession and exploitation in Blouberg
Four years after moving his family from Boksburg to Springs to be closer to his job at the Kellogg’s plant, the company wanted to move Mathebula to a Boksburg warehouse to work as a DC load checker, a job he is unable to explain when asked.
“I have a three-month-old baby!” spat Mathebula (his WhatsApp status is often a flood of pictures of the baby girl, Sinethemba, smiling up from a navy blue babygrow with white lettering: Styled by Mom.) “Their timing is terrible.”
The workers said they have been dismissed in the absence of due disciplinary processes. When asked, Mposelwa declined to clarify, saying only that the company’s disciplinary processes are known to all of its employees.
The long battle between the workers and the cereal giant appears to be headed back to the CCMA, where the workers are considering referring their dismissals as a dispute.