Threats fail to discourage striking Clover workers

Participants in the eight-week-long strike at the dairy company say their lives and property have been endangered, but they will not back down from their demand that Clover be nationalised.

While Kagiso Moeng* rested in his back room in Gauteng on Sunday 9 January, he was stressed about potentially losing R1 600 of the R8 000 salary he earns monthly as a load controller at Clover, a job he has done for 10 years.

Moeng, 34, is a shop steward for Clover workers belonging to the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa) and one of the leaders at the forefront of the continuing strike at the dairy giant. It started on 22 November with workers fighting against Clover’s move to make them work longer hours for less. 

“At around 11pm to 12pm [on 9 January], I received a call and the person on the phone said they will follow me around until they find where I live. So if I don’t stop the protest nicely, I will do it under unpleasant circumstances,” said Moeng.

A number of Clover workers and shop stewards say they received threatening calls between 7 and 9 January. According to a media statement by Giwusa and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), whose members are also taking part in the strike, some vehicles of striking workers in Gauteng were attacked with petrol bombs two nights in a row. On the Sunday Moeng received the threatening call, several men in two vehicles visited certain workers to demand that they end the strike.

13 January 2022: Demonstrators protest against Milco SA, which is a subsidiary of the Israel-based Central Bottling Company that took over Clover in 2019.

Milco SA, a subsidiary of Israel’s Central Bottling Company (CBC), bought the majority stake in Clover in 2019. The largest dairy company in South  Africa, Clover had more than 8 500 workers at the time, and Milco SA committed to adding a further 550 jobs over five years through the expansion of Project Masakhane, which is aimed at expanding its distribution reach. 

But less than three years after the Competition Tribunal approved the deal, six factories have closed down and more than 2 000 workers have been retrenched. Those who remain are facing 20% salary cuts that can equate to up to R5 000 for workers who have been with the company for more than two decades.

According to striking Clover workers picketing outside the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition in Pretoria on Thursday 13 January, Milco SA has completely changed the work culture at Clover and subjects them to “apartheid-times treatment”. 

Endless uncertainty and demands

Given Mabalala, 34, has been a merchandiser for 12 years. His salary of R8 000 will be R1 600 less if the company implements the 20% cut. 

“It’s hard working there now because we are expected to work weekends and holidays, as if their normal days had no double pay. We also work as if we are on contract. They call us in when they need us, and on the days they don’t we don’t get paid. We can’t budget around that because you don’t know what you earn each month,” Mabalala said. 

Fawu’s provincial secretary, Tebogo Rakoma, likened Clover’s lack of worker consultation during the restructuring process since Milco SA took over to conditions in pre-democratic South Africa. “When we were in apartheid times, a boss would simply stand in the passage and change your conditions of employment and will tell you to either take it or leave it. If you don’t, here is the gate,” Rakoma said. 

“This is what is happening right now at Clover to workers, and the government must say this is not how we treat workers in South Africa. Workers are supposed to get increases to keep up with price increases of food, electricity and so on. While other companies are giving people increases, Clover is giving people decreases.”

13 January 2022: Workers are set to lose 20% of their salaries if the planned restructuring of Clover takes place.

Rakoma handed over a list of demands on behalf of the striking workers to the department’s acting director general, Malebo Mabitje-Thompson, who accepted it on behalf of Ebrahim Patel, the minister of trade, industry and competition.

Multiple international organisations such as the Palestine New Federation of Trade Unions and Unite London, a workers union based in the United Kingdom, have pledged their support for the striking workers. The South African Federation of Trade Unions, Palestinian Solidarity Alliance and the Workers and Socialist Party also joined the picket in Pretoria.

The Palestine New Federation of Trade Unions compared Clover workers’ struggles with those of workers in Israel. “It pains us to see our fellow workers in South Africa suffering from the rapacious and exploitative practices of Milco SA … Workers in Palestine are familiar with this company, and many other apartheid Israeli companies, that are situated on stolen Palestinian land, in illegal settlements,” it said.

CBC is a manufacturer and distributor of soft drinks, dairy products and alcoholic beverages in Israel. According to the federation, it operates one of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling facilities in the “illegal” industrial development settlement of Atarot, outside Jerusalem, on land stolen from Palestinians in 1967.

Scared but defiant 

As Moeng stood among his fellow workers who had proceeded to the Union Buildings to ask for a meeting with the Presidency, he said he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would be followed from the protest by the people who had threatened him. “I am traumatised, I won’t lie. It’s scary thinking anything can happen to you,” Moeng said. 

There was a victory for workers on Monday when the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration ruled that Clover had to pay bonuses that had been withheld from workers to coerce them into ending the strike.

Giwusa and Fawu are determined to continue the strike until their demands are met and Clover is nationalised. Asked whether he regrets taking part in the strike because he has been placed in harm’s way, Moeng said: “I cannot back down, I have a family to take care of. I have worked at Clover for many years and it is only right that my pay shows that they can’t take me back to a salary from five years ago. 

13 January 2022: Clover workers belonging to the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa make their grievances clear.

“We will show that when we unite, we can do something even younger generations will remember. We are fighting for better working conditions and for all to keep their jobs.” 

Giwusa president Mametlwe Sebei singled out the ANC for criticism in his speech at the Union Buildings. He said the ruling party is merely an executive board for the wealthy and turns a deaf ear to the cries of the working class. 

“Why is it that when Clover calls saying that there is going to be a strike, they [the ANC government] deploy the police? But when the workers say, intervene in our interest, no, then they want protocols, there are processes, they want to investigate, there are commissions and all of that,” Sebei said.

Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice journalism.

Correction, 24 May 2022: The Eugene Saldanha Memorial fellowship is supported by the SET. It was incorrectly referred to as a fund.

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