The shock of sudden retrenchment

A company closing, its employees let go by ‘the bearer of bad news’. Sucker punched, one man has yet to tell his mother.

We got retrenched yesterday. Every last one of us is serving our notice this August. We all are going into spring jobless.

A woman in a silk shirt came in and said, “You must forgive me for I am the bearer of bad news.” She said the firm was restructuring, then paused to drink some water. Then, with haste, she explained that the firm was in fact folding. That management had already struck a deal with another company and was transferring our existing clients to them. 

She said that for months now, our expenses had been much higher than our income/revenue. She assured us, however, that none of this was our fault. On behalf of management, she thanked some for the many years of dedicated service, others for the months they had given their all to the company. She was sorry we were losing our jobs. We could take a moment to digest this news and ask questions afterwards. Again, she was very sorry. Silence.

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We had gotten an email saying: “Meeting tomorrow. 11am. Boardroom.”

On the lift club drive home, we speculated about the meeting. Jerry said maybe they’d tell us that our director had resigned; he’d been gone for more than two weeks. I nodded and looked out the window. Nombasa said we might be relocating to Sandton because the holding company’s offices are there. Nandi, elated, said that would be cool.

When no questions came, the woman said we need not worry about our salaries. We would be paid as normal, only it’d be our last paycheque. She said deductions for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and our funeral policies would still be made. We will, of course, be able to claim some UIF money while we look for new jobs.

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“So, it’s not nearly as bad as it looks, is it?” Silence for a minute. Then a hand shot up over in the corner. It was Clarence. “In what capacity are you addressing us? Is it as a lawyer or as an HR consultant?” She curtly replied, “HR consultant, here for the interests of your employer.” Clarence then said thank you. 

Any more questions? None. “Okay, guys, you will get your termination of contract letters tomorrow. Again, I am awfully sorry about this. If you have any more questions, we can have a brief one-on-one session tomorrow. Good luck for the future.”

Mixed reaction

People cry when they learn of loved ones dying. Some throw themselves on the floor and wail. Many, too shocked and without the energy for theatrics, pull at their hair while tears stream down their faces. Others’ visages take on a sombre mood with empty stares into the distance. There are variations of these reactions when people learn they are being retrenched, too. 

No one at our firm rolled around on the carpet and wept, though. We said not a word more and shuffled back to our cubicles in the other room.

Enrico, the office clown, then guffawed at nothing in particular and for what seemed like an eternity. He suddenly stopped, eyes red, and went for a smoke. 11:45am. He uttered not a sound after that until the clock set us free at 4pm. 

Ruth is three months pregnant. She was telling us just yesterday that when the baby comes, she will be hiring a stay-in nanny for a year. She went into her cubicle and called her siblings. 

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Mandla looked at me and laughed stupidly, laughter that may very well have been a wail. He has family in Giyani and children at school. Before the meeting, he had been online comparing the prices of building materials.

Because I studied law at some point, I went running to the internet looking for the Labour Relations Act. Finding no comforting sections, I hastened to Lexis Nexis and skimmed through case law on the legal research site. Next, I turned to textbooks and internet summaries. Then I swung around and announced to my fellow retrenchees that we may have a case, only to be met with blank glares. I slumped back into my chair and looked at the pile of work still waiting for me. My phone on the table and no strength to call my mother.

Hlokomelo on my right doesn’t seem to care anymore. He has stopped working and is doing his Unisa assignments, openly. Earlier, he looked at me and said, “These people take us for fools, man.” Sure, they do, man. Sure, they do.

‘Eish’

I am wearing yellow socks today and have come to terms with everything. Working is still difficult though. Most of us are on online job portals looking for the next gig, coming across loads of seemingly relevant posts, half of which turn out to be scams. 

We meet at the printer, collecting our CVs, and we linger, saying, “Eish.” There is no laughter today and no chit-chat. Just talk and minor plotting. It all fizzles out into nothingness. We keep sending emails anyway, hoping to get an interview.

Soon, we will be on our drive home. We probably won’t say a word to each other. Maybe we will laugh if we are lucky. If we talk, we will shake our heads and say we are being dealt a bad hand and that we have a case at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

We know the procedure, for we have gone through the relevant acts and have read experts’ opinions, and more. It will probably die at the talking stage though, for we are low-tier corporate workers without a union’s protection and with pockets too shallow to afford lawyers. Off to the UIF offices we will go, in our shorts and our slip-slops at twelve o’clock in the afternoon.

Then it will just be me in my room, with Toni Morrison’s book on the table, closed. Too drained to read. Maybe I will sob, too, for the job I had and for Toni. Maybe, then, I will call my mother. 

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