PE Bridgestone workers reject retrenchment packages

The company is among many that have retrenched workers citing financial struggles because of Covid-19. But a union claims the retrenchments have been in the pipeline for a decade.

Workers at multinational company Bridgestone’s tyre manufacturing plant in Port Elizabeth have rejected claims of being given fair retrenchment packages. Others have criticised the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) for not fighting hard enough for them. 

The retrenchment of workers has been on the rise since the Covid-19 lockdown started in March. Many companies, Bridgestone among them, have blamed these retrenchments on their loss of income during the pandemic as a number of industries were shut down for months. 

Bridgestone released a statement at the beginning of November about its intention to retrench 252 workers. The company claimed it didn’t have the financial capacity to invest in a new plant that would produce radial tyres as opposed to the older version bias tyres it has been manufacturing. 

It also claimed that it had agreed with unions to fair severance packages for the workers. But some workers dispute this. “We are not happy with what the employers are giving us because it is far less than what we demanded,” said Simphiwe Mbuso, the workers’ shop steward. 

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“The process has not been transparent and the manner in which they left us in our last meeting was not proper. The employer still has a lot of questions to answer to the union as we have raised various concerns to which the employer has not yet responded.”

Numsa represents 60% of the workers in the company while the remaining 40% are without union representation. “The union is mandated and we acted on the workers’ mandate,” said Numsa local organiser Bongo Mfuniselwa. 

“In the workplace, there are various workers [who are] working in different positions of employment. There are direct and indirect [outsourced] workers. The workers wanted everyone to get equal pay, but during our engagements with the employer they provided a different analogy of the situation, which we accepted because it made sense. The workers initially wanted R200 000, but we managed to get the direct workers R90 000 and the indirect workers R20 000. We are not proud of this settlement, but we didn’t want to drag the matter in court for years while workers suffer. It is our view that these retrenchments were premeditated by the employer as early as 2010,” said Mfuniselwa. 

Unfair severance packages

While Numsa says the agreement was in the best interest of its members, the workers disagree. “We are not satisfied with the union,” said a 31-year-old worker who did not want to be named. “They didn’t stick to the original package. We wanted an equal package for all workers. This new package we are being given is not fair. I am worried that, before the end of 2021, I will not be able to feed my two children, let alone afford their school fees.”

This worker rejected Brigestone’s claim that it could not afford to invest in a new plant. “The company is lying when they say that they can’t afford to produce a radial tyre. This company has been around for years, profiting on our labour, and now they claim to not have the capital. This is far-fetched. Why didn’t they take us to training so that we would be able to produce this new tyre?” he said.

Some of the outsourced workers who are cleaners or employed in the canteen also feel that their deal with their employers, Fidelity Services Group and Fedics, has been unfair. Asking to remain anonymous, they said they were told that they would only be given their current pay cheque and one week’s November pay for some, while others would get two weeks. They would also receive their provident fund and Unemployment Insurance Fund benefits. 

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“We were told nothing about our bonuses, even though the closure of the company is in November. We have already worked hard for that bonus, yet nothing is said about that. How will we feed our children? I have four children. I live in a shack in Motherwell and I am the sole provider. The money I am leaving with is not enough,” said a woman who is one of the outsourced workers.

“In the canteen, we were usually paid back our hours, but now they are saying that they will only pay us for the two weeks we have worked. Our question is how is it possible that we leave the company with so little money? I have worked with two companies here, Kagiso Khulani Services and Fedics, which is the current owner of the canteen. I have a combined 18 years working here, but today I leave with nothing to show for it,” said another woman, who is in her late 40s. 

Between a rock and a hard place

Other workers also stated that they felt underappreciated by Fedics, Fidelity and Bridgestone because they had been working for them for between eight and 18 years. They claimed that every time Bridgestone outsourced cleaning and catering services to new companies they had remained working loyally during the transition. 

“[Our] employers told us that after the closure [of the plant], we should anticipate their call after a period of six months. They said that they would find a new site for us to work at. I don’t think they understand our struggle, because what they are paying us now will not last those six months. Come January 2021, we will be without money. We want to say that if there are possible buyers of the Bridgestone company, we wish to be re-employed by them because we are old now and work in Port Elizabeth is scarce and unemployment is very high,” said 50-year-old Adelaide Goniwe.

Security guards said the company had instructed them not to allow the media on to the premises or permit them to take photographs. As such, attempts to interview Bridgestone’s management were unsuccessful.

Correction, 4 May 2021: The headline for this article previously said retirement packages instead of retrenchment packages.

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