Four retail employees in Port Elizabeth have allegedly been subjected to a degrading underwear inspection at work. They say it was carried out by their employer, who had accused the women of “dirtying” the staff toilet with menstrual blood.
“I don’t know how I got through the day. But I know I was crying in between helping customers. The more I thought about it, the more humiliated I felt because something about what happened felt so wrong. I know I didn’t have to let her check me. But without thinking at the time, I was so desperate to prove my innocence in the matter,” said one of the employees.
The women work at JA Floral Distributors, a florist, coffee shop and party accessories store in Fairview that employs about 30 people. The employee filed a complaint with the retailer’s human resources department and the manager has been suspended.
“I was raised in an environment where you are taught your periods should not be public knowledge. And you must keep clean all the time. And is seen as a private and a personal matter. But at JA Floral on 4 September 2020, I had to make my period public knowledge, pull down my underwear, show how my period looks, my private part out in the open and have my personal matter, privacy and my womanhood discussed at my workplace,” said the woman in a written complaint to the human resources manager.
Dominic de Freitas, the son of owner Jorge de Freitas, allegedly summoned the four black women to the company kitchen on the morning of Friday 4 September. They were reportedly told that one of them had left menstrual blood in a toilet and not flushed it, and that person was a “pig” who would be caught and exposed. The women were then sent back to work.
A day of indignity
At lunchtime that day, some of the employees were again called to the kitchen, this time allegedly by Dominic’s sister Natasha de Freitas, 29, and asked to disclose if they were menstruating. This was done in the presence of her brother. One of the workers was told to sign a written warning after she disclosed that she was menstruating. When she refused to do so, the workers were reportedly made to go into the toilet with Natasha and pull down their pants in front of her.
Natasha de Freitas allegedly then told the women to keep quiet about the incident, saying “none of this ever happened”. The employees went back to work for the rest of the day. Some of the women are in their mid-40s and feel humiliated at having been forced to expose their genitals to a younger woman. They say their colleague, who is in her early 20s, is traumatised.
“I don’t want to even think about this incident anymore. It was so traumatising and I was not even one of the people who was inspected. But I felt sick all weekend, and depressed,” said a second employee.
A third added: “This time, Natasha went way out of line. Ever since she came, she seems to be trying to make a point that this is a family business. I was not even surprised when she told us to take off our panties because the way she always searches us after work, you can tell she wants to go under our skirts. It is actually sexual assault. Is it because we are black?”
“I may be hungry, but I am not stupid,” said the aggrieved employee, referring to the reduced wages of R2 000 a month she has been earning during the Covid-19 lockdown, during which the store’s opening hours have been limited. Despite not earning enough to feed herself properly, she knows her rights, she said, and she shouldn’t have to accept underwear inspections just because she needs the job.
“I have had headaches since that day. We, as blacks, have been taught to treat people with respect. I have never checked even my daughter’s period, because I know it is private. But we have to tolerate this because we have no other jobs. They have even been threatening to put cameras in the toilets before this. Our whole families are so cross. This has to stop. I am so hurt and they really need to pay for dragging our dignity like that.”
JA Floral human resources manager Zelda Collins said the perpetrator has been suspended. But she would not confirm that it was Natasha de Freitas.
“The person has been suspended pending a hearing. There is going to be a grievance hearing and a disciplinary hearing held, and then obviously … she has actually already apologised to them. Nothing formal, as she was asked to leave the premises,” said Collins.
The disciplinary hearing is pending the outcome of the grievance hearing, said Collins. She acknowledged that making someone strip off their underwear could be seen as a sexual offence.
“We are definitely not condoning anything that happened here. It is wrong, it is something we are dealing with. I won’t suspend one of my staff members if I didn’t think it was necessary,” she said.
On 8 September, security guards denied New Frame access to the premises. “You can write your story from outside,” said Alex, a security guard who declined to give his surname. Minutes earlier, six provincial EFF leaders had entered the shop to demand that Natasha de Freitas be dismissed.
EFF prepared to ‘mobilise’
EFF deputy regional secretary Siyasanga Gidana said she had been told the disciplinary hearing would take place on Friday 11 September. “We told them we want immediate trauma counselling for those workers and compensation. We expect the outcome of Friday’s disciplinary hearing to be dismissal. If the lady is not fired, we will mobilise,” said Gidana.
EFF provincial organiser Khanya Ngqisha said it was unacceptable for Collins to say she did not condone what had happened. “It happened in the workplace, under their watch. We want serious compensation to be paid to those workers,” he said.
A fourth woman said, “I was so embarrassed. I don’t know how they are asking us to do that. To pull off our panties? That was so wrong. Even those who said they don’t have a period were told by Natasha that she had to check us. Nothing like this has ever happened before there. I want the boss to bring all of us together and apologise.
“There are a lot of things happening there. There is very much racism at JA Floral. They keep telling us blacks we must be grateful for the jobs. They are not treating us equally, they are treating us badly. I don’t even know what they think of us, I really don’t know. The way they treat white people there is not the same as they treat us coloured and black people. They are treating us bad,” she added.
Support for women’s rights
Eastern Cape children’s rights and victim empowerment organisation the Khula Community Development Project said women are often “made to submit to abuse in order to get employment”.
Project director Petros Majola said another separate protest took place 200km away in Peddie on the same day, after a female Expanded Public Works Programme worker was allegedly told she would have to have sex with a ward councillor if she wanted her contract to be extended.
“We demand the immediate removal of a ward councillor who demanded sex. It is alleged that the councillor went on by telling this girl, if she doesn’t give him what he is asking for, her family will not get his signature to apply for free electricity, and they did not get it because she refused to sleep with the councillor. The women of Ngqushwa municipality are now demanding the removal of this honourable councillor and anyone who was aware of this case but failed to act, and that this lady be given the job without going into a bedroom with the honourable member of the council,” said Majola in a text message.
Social justice collective the C19 People’s Coalition in the Eastern Cape has rallied around the retail employees and government workers.
“This kind of behaviour has to come to an end. We will be standing with the women staff members of JA Floral in PE and with the young woman from Ngqushwa municipality,” said C19 People’s Coalition provincial convenor Nicole Collier-Naidoo.
Correction, 11 September 2020: This article has been amended to reflect that the protest in Peddie had no connection to the EFF, which protested in Port Elizabeth.