Since 2013, Shoprite workers in at least three SADC countries-Zambia, South Africa and Namibia-went on strike over low wages. The cries are unanimous: “Pay us better”.
But despite these cries, the South African retail giant continues to rake in billions derived from the sweat of its poorly-paid workers.
The workers are demanding better working conditions including better salaries and benefits such as transport, medical aid and housing.
In 2013, South Africa’s Shoprite Holdings agreed to increase wages for its Zambian workforce by up to 34% after Lusaka threatened to shut down its stores over the pay issue.
Shoprite had fired its Zambian workforce after employees went on strike for higher wages.
That prompted labour minister Fackson Shamenda to threaten to revoke the grocer’s trading licence.
Last year the South African Shoprite workforce also embarked on a strike over wages.
In Namibia, there is an ongoing call for a consumer boycott on Shoprite, Checkers and all other Shoprite Checkers Group subsidiaries.
The retail giant is suing workers for N$4.5 million (the same in rands) over the strike that allegedly caused it a loss in profit because Shoprite had to spend money on the legal costs of court action, disciplinary action and to hire additional stuff and security.
The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and Creation Bro-Matthew Shinguadja in a statement issued yesterday said government is fully aware of the implications of the National Consumer Boycott but it has to rally behind it[the workers] for moral and social support.
In the statement, the Labour Ministry highlights a number of key interventions stating it was hopeful for an orderly collective bargaining process along with the promotion and maintenance of harmonious labour relations at Shoprite. It further invited Shoprite to an urgent meeting which was scheduled to take place on 23rd April 2018.
According to the statement, Shinguadja states that Shoprite informed the Ministry that it was only going to be available during the week of 21- 24 May 2018, a month thereafter. “The Ministry took this position of Shoprite as insubordination hence unacceptable,” he said.
While the Government invites possible investors to assist in its developmental agenda, the PS said government wants genuine investors with good intentions who are willing to operate within the ambit of the Namibian legal and policy framework at all times.
Seasoned labour expert Herbert Jauch there is a need to challenge Shoprite’s decision to sue workers to avoid a precedence being set which might open the door for other retail giants to follow suit.
Shoprite employees take home a shoestring salary of N$1200 to N$2500.
“This is not about the 93 employees. It is about a multinational company trying to teach our people a lesson that they should never stand up for their rights. If we ignore, this will be a precedence that the country sets for other companies that they can walk over our people,” said Jauch.
Jauch is of the opinion that the company’s stance to sue workers who can barely afford to make a living is unfair, considering that the company initiated the disciplinary hearing that has cost it so much money. The respective Shoprite and Checkers outlet workers went on a strike three years ago to demand a wage rise and the addition of medical aid, transport and housing allowance from their employers. Shoprite claims the workers were aware that the dates they chose to strike represent the busiest trading days for the company and consequently caused them losses and damaged their reputation.
The rather blatant intimidation, which Jauch feels should be put to an end by the nation, will be the foundation of a strong message to other companies who do not have the interest of their workers at heart.
“If we put an end to Shoprite, this will send a message to other companies that they should treat their workers better. Thus, the role of Namibians in this boycott is to finally show the solidarity and give meaning to the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, and to say we are concerned and stand with those who are abused,” he said.
“Let us not have fear of Shoprite leaving, because we are still far away from seeing their trading license being revoked. Let us stand up, otherwise, we become a society where one suffers on their own and that we no longer support each other. There will be some of us who will no longer buy there so it must be a boycott that they must feel,” he added.
Jauch is adamant that the boycott should receive the backing of government considering that the company has over the years ignored labour laws in the country. News around the relationship between the line ministry and Shoprite management point to the fact that the company’s management claims to be ‘busy’ when requested to meet either with the unions or the ministry itself.
“Government must declare that they will no longer purchase from Shoprite. In fact, government must cancel all purchase orders from Shoprite, be it from the food bank or for other functions.”
Meanwhile, Shoprite Holdings chief executive Pieter Engelbrecht last year received a total remuneration of R31.3 million for 2017, including bonuses.
According to the retailer’s annual report, Engelbrecht’s annual salary in his first year as chief executive was R9.71 million. The retailer has a 31.9 percent market share and employs 143,802 people. It was also reported that former CEO Whitey Basson, who stepped down last year, earned about R100 million in 2016. Basson, who left Shoprite at the end of 2017, earned R50 million including bonuses.
At the weekly Affirmative Repositioning Consciousness Dialogues, human rights lawyer Norman Tjombe weighed in on the matter likening the grim saga to an atrocity committed against the employees.
“What has been done and what continues to be done to these workers at Shoprite is an atrocity. It is one of those cases where all of us must stand up for the rights and dignity of these workers.”
“These workers ask for what any reasonable person would ask for and the company just ignored their please. It is not a crime to ask for some form of dignity. However, what Shoprite is now demonstrating is that; we want to teach you a lesson so you will never ever down tools again, otherwise you will be sued,” he added.
Tjombe also called on the workers to stick to one union should they aspire to be taken seriously. At the moment, the disunity of unions dealing with the matter on the ground has been a shortcoming from the side of the employees, and Tjombe asserts that this is something Shoprite took advantage of.
“However, this is a region wide problem and all of the workers across the regions have the same problems that the Namibian workers are experiencing. So it is time to stand up. It might take long but we should not give up or feel despondent when you feel, there are no immediate results,” Tjombe concluded.