No union for the workers

WHILE more than 3000 employees walk through the gates of Sovereign Foods in Uitenhage each day, most are casual workers hired by labour brokers. These workers, many of whom have worked at the factory for decades, receive few benefits and have no union.

There is no organised transport for them, even though the factory is 5km from the centre of Uitenhage and some workers finish their shift at 3.30am.

And although the company claims it pays a night shift allowance, pay slips and conversations with workers show this is not always the case.

While Sovereign management claims that a high turnover is not in the company’s best interests, these workers are completely expendable. Should they get into a dispute, complain about working conditions or miss work because of illness, they are simply replaced by one of the dozens of desperate job-seekers who mill around outside the factory gates daily.

Labour brokers absolve Sovereign Foods of much of the responsibility for their own workforce, as workers are paid by labour brokers and so are not officially employed by the company itself.

There are 2460 people employed at Sovereign Foods through three labour brokers: Barco, Workforce and True Labour Consultant (TLC). About 1700 workers are supplied by Barco.

Sovereign Foods, producer of brands including Country Range, Chicken Barn and Farmer’s Lane, argues that it does not have the ability or resources to properly identify and recruit such a large workforce, and that the work is “seasonal”, so it needs to use casual labour.

However, unions say labour brokers give Sovereign free reign to mistreat and exploit workers, while workers claim that anyone who tries to unionise the workforce at the company is dismissed.

WHAT THE WORKERS SAY:

“I have seen this company change names from Farmer Brown and Fun Fare to Rocklands Poultry and now Sovereign Foods,” recalls one worker who has worked at the factory for almost 30 years. “I was once a permanent staff member but as the company changed, more casuals were introduced.

“All the permanent staff were forced out of the company to labour brokers, who make us work 10 to 12 hours a day with little or no break at all. Working here is hell. The treatment by the line supervisor, manager and broker is very unfair. We cannot stand up to them because we will be shown the gate. A number of people, including me, have opened cases with the Labour Department, but nothing has come of that.”

Another labourer said they wanted permanent, decent work with the privileges a worker deserved: “I’m a man with a wife and kids to support. At R7.04 an hour there is not much I can give my children.”

WHAT THE COMPANY SAYS:

Sovereign Foods chief financial officer Chris Coombes said the company did not have the ability or resources to properly identify and recruit so many people, so it relied mainly on labour brokers.

“Given the seasonal nature of poultry production, it is economically expedient to be able to draw on labour as and when required to meet demand, instead of having employees on a full-time basis even when there is a lull in production,” he said.

There were times of the year when production of certain products, which were more manually labour- intensive, increased. “This necessitates a degree of flexibility to accommodate these increases in labour requirements.”

He would not disclose how much the company paid labour brokers for each employee, but said Barco was paid a flat fee per fortnight for its services. He said all wage rates were compliant with labour legislation. “Sovereign audits Barco on a quarterly basis. This includes a review of workers’ pay slips to ensure they are being treated correctly and are being paid as agreed.”

WHAT LABOUR BROKERS SAY:

When The Herald contacted two of the three brokers at Sovereign Foods, Stephen Simon of Workforce and Barries Barnard of Barco, they promised to respond to e-mailed questions. But later they referred all queries to Sovereign Foods, saying they had been instructed not to speak to The Herald.

WHAT THE UNIONS SAY:

SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union official Babalo Kondile said he had heard many complaints from workers who wanted a union at Sovereign Foods. Some complaints were about poor safety measures, lack of transport and unfair treatment of workers by either brokers or Sovereign Foods officials.

“Workers claim there is a dam area where workers have to cook chicken waste, feathers and blood for the chickens to eat. They say that place is full of maggots and they are not given protective clothes. A number have been sick because of the unhealthy environment they work in.

“They do not have breaks as the law states. Line managers can easily tear up an employee’s clock card. They work 10 hours and more per shift and receive no compensation for night shift,” he said.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS:

Nelson Mandela Bay labour lawyer Francois le Roux said labour brokers were sometimes legitimately required due to genuine operational needs. “However, there are cases where companies use them because they don’t want the hassle of employing people or being dragged to the CCMA or the Labour Court. Normally brokers are nothing more than a payment point for a labour service provided to their clients.” While Le Roux said there were some reputable labour brokers, in most cases there “is no client and employee relationship”.

Company against bribes to labour brokers

SOVEREIGN Foods chief financial officer Chris Coombes said the company strongly opposed the practice of labour brokers taking bribes to secure jobs.

He said this had been reported to the company in the past, and severe disciplinary action had been taken against those involved.

“We have dismissed all those who took bribes in the past. We were not aware that it was still happening and will investigate the claims before taking action against those found guilty.”

Coombes said compensation paid to workers complied with all applicable wage laws, including those relating to minimum wages, overtime hours and legally mandated benefits such as UIF, skills development and workman’s compensation. Working hours were also limited to what is acceptable by legislation.

“We strive at all times to maintain good communication channels with all of our employees through company-based information and consultation procedures. There are numerous success stories where people have gone from labour broker employees to permanent Sovereign employees.

“We endeavour at all times to provide our employees with a safe environment where they are protected from the hazards of the job. Workers are provided with the necessary safety equipment as appropriate to the job being performed.

“Procedures and systems are in place to manage, track and report occupational injury and illness. Emergency response procedures are also in place.”

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