South African supermarket chain Shoprite is under fire in Namibia, and major protest action is set to take place in Windhoek on Thursday.
The Centre for People’s Resistance (CPR) in Namibia has called for a boycott of Africa’s largest retail chain and the mass demonstration in support of 93 workers who are being sued by the retailer for striking for a 20% salary increase in July 2015.
CPR has put a petition online to stop the “unjust” disciplinary charges.
“The fight of the Shoprite workers for justice, respect and dignity is our fight. Their suffering diminishes our humanity. The future of the Shoprite workers should not be decided in a hearing held in a cold and dark hall presided over by lawyers. Resist the injustice! Demand the immediate dropping of the charges against the Shoprite workers,” reads the petition.
The public decided to boycott Shoprite in solidarity with the workers and their working conditions.
The employees were being disciplined for participating in an unprotected strike, which they said was a direct reaction to Shoprite’s unlawful conduct and unfair labour practice.
The workers were demanding better wages, a transport allowance and medical aid.
It is reported that the management did not meet with the workers but sent police to dismiss them while they were demonstrating outside their respective branches.
Some employees resigned, while at least 176 workers were dismissed and 93 of them faced disciplinary hearings.
The labour ministry in Namibia said the behaviour of Shoprite in the country was no different than in South Africa.
Bro-Matthew Shinguadja of the Namibian labour ministry said: “They do not treat workers with respect. Even last month there were unions that wanted to strike because of Shoprite’s way of treating workers.”
“We have engaged Shoprite on that matter. We even called the South African shareholders who came here [to Namibia] so that we could tell them our displeasure. They made promises. They said they will look into the matter [but] they have not done that.
Shoprite denied that it had treated the workers unfairly.
“We have always made an effort to base dealings with our employees on the principles of fairness and respect and in compliance with provisions of prevailing labour legislation,” said Shoprite in an email sent to City Press.
“Shoprite Namibia is consistently opening new stores and in the past five years has created 1275 new job opportunities in the country, and is hoping for a speedy conclusion of this matter so as to allow the supermarket group to continue serving its customers and create stable jobs unhindered,” said the Shoprite media team.
However, workers, the lawyer and the labour ministry that City Press spoke to this week claimed that the retail chain was exploiting and bullying its staff.
It filed an interdict against its workers and summoned them to appear in court.
It is suing them for N$4.5 million (about 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 court documents showed that Shoprite claimed the workers resolved to instigate an unlawful strike at the premises of the retailer with intention to induce the workers to breach their contract.
The document said the workers refused to execute the employer’s instructions to work.
They stopped working and did not leave the premises – which caused them economic loss and reputational harm.
A Shoprite employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said when their representatives finally met with management, what was supposed to be a negotiation meeting ended up with management calling the shots.
They were told to accept what was put on the table and nothing more was going to be offered.
“They told us to take what they are offering. We must just take it if we want it and if we don’t we can go wherever we want to go. They just offered us N$200 while the salary is very low,” said the worker.
“We were told that all the decisions are made in South Africa, so we should just wait for them.”
The employee said she was very disappointed by the retailer, mainly because of how they were treated.
“Many people were fired because they were targeted at the hearings. They made sure that those people were fired,” she said.
She said even though they still go to work it is like “hell” – they did not have rights and they were afraid of talking to their bosses.
“The management and staff are just like the lion and the goat – you cannot even tell them if you have problems.”
Uno Katjipuka, the lawyer representing the employees, said it had been years that the workers had been struggling with the working conditions at Shoprite.
Katjipuka agreed that Shoprite was treating employees unfairly.
“The workers are well within their rights. The working conditions at Shoprite are appalling. You should see the plight of an average Shoprite Namibian worker. Most of these people [Shoprite employees] make something like N$2000 a month, on average. You can spend about N$950 on transport only, and then you still have to eat and feed your family. Many of them are forced to borrow money from family members or loan sharks,” she said.
She said that the workers weren’t asking for a lot.
“If they [Shoprite] were pressed to do better they could but now who is there to press them to do the right thing? We know capitalists do not voluntarily give the money away – not to their own workers.”
She added that unions had abandoned the workers and the government had tried but Shoprite was laughing in their faces.
Katjipuka said they would fight Shoprite to withdraw the case and, if possible, they would go all the way to the supreme court because their claims were “ridiculous”.
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.
Earlier this year, the South African Shoprite workforce also embarked on a strike over wages.