Walking home after night shift the norm

MANY Sovereign Foods workers risk their personal safety walking kilometres back home after their night shift ends at the chicken factory in Kruis River Road, Uitenhage. The company has shifts ending at 8pm, 10pm, midnight and 3.30am, which makes it difficult for workers who rely on public transport to find lifts home.

Ntombekhaya Leeyo, 45, a mother of two, died on her way from work when she and her colleagues were hitch-hiking in Kruis River Road earlier this year. Her sister, Vuyelwa Leeyo, said Ntombekhaya was returning home after finishing her shift at 8pm on a Sunday and was standing at a popular hitch- hiking spot when she was hit by a truck.

“We were all shocked to hear the news. We were still expecting her home after work,” Vuyelwa said.

While the company maintains transport is provided, many Sovereign Foods workers told The Herald public transport from the factory was scarce, especially on Sundays, public holidays and in the early hours of the morning.

Packer Vuyokazi Qoli, 28, said she normally walked almost 5km from the factory to her home in KwaNobuhle after finishing her shift at night.

“We walk in groups so no one can attack us. It is risky but what can we do when we can’t get a lift home? We pass a graveyard and a bushy field before we get to our homes in Khayelitsha and KwaNobuhle,” she said.

A feather-plucker, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said buses and taxis did not generally come to the factory at night.

“The small cars which operate, like jikelezas, will only come to the factory if they are specifically asked by someone.

“That also depends on how many people are there, and on weekends they don’t come at all because business is good in the township, so we have no option but to walk.

“There have been a number of people who have been robbed. But when we tell the brokers, they don’t want to listen to our story.

“No one really cares about our safety. They are only concerned about you coming to work and doing your job. When someone reports that he or she has been robbed, they take it as if you do not want to work.

“They will often tell us we have got an attitude, but because we do not want to lose our jobs we keep on coming to work, even though sometimes we risk our lives.”

Another worker, who also did not want to be named, said although her shift finished at 3.30am, she often had to wait for a taxi until 5.30am if she did not want to hitch-hike to her home in Motherwell.

She said because of her children she was forced to go home every night, although some of her colleagues who lived in Port Elizabeth had opted to rent accommodation in Uitenhage to avoid being stranded after working night shift.

Nelson Mandela Bay labour lawyer Francios le Roux said the Basic Conditions of Employment Act stated that employers had to ensure transport was available for employees who worked night shifts.

“If transport is not available, then the employer should at least compensate his employees by paying them a night shift allowance.

“If the employer does not make sure transport is available for his workers, then the company is breaking the law and should not make them work night shift.”

Le Roux said the possible penalty an employer might get if he did not make transport available for his night workers would be R100 per employee.

Approached for comment, Sovereign Foods chief financial officer Chris Coombes said Sovereign had an agreement with Barco whereby transport was facilitated for night workers.

“This is in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment. The original agreement was that Barco would provide 17 private taxis at various times to accommodate the workers,” he said.

“The worker is responsible for paying for the transport. The worker can choose whether to take the arranged transport or arrange alternative transport as they so wish.

“This arrangement is being upgraded to providing buses from the Algoa Bus Service although the current taxi operators are up in arms at the prospect of this.”

However, an inspection by Labour Department officials of Sovereign Foods following queries by The Herald found that transport was not being adequately supplied, as claimed.

Provincial Labour Department spokesperson Vuyokazi Mbanjwa said Sovereign and Barco were contravening Section 17 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

The act states transport must be available for every employee working between 6pm and 6am.

“The department visited the company last week and found that it was not paying night shift allowances to all employees working at night, only to those working permanently at night.”

Mbanjwa said the department had given the company three months to rectify the situation.

“Department officials will revisit the company once the three months have lapsed to ensure they are operating according to the law,” she said.