Durban - A prominent Durban family business was warned its operations would be brought to a standstill if it went ahead with worker pay cuts and use of labour brokers.
However, Trade Port Distribution in Phoenix, among the largest independent cash and carry distributors in Africa, insists the angry workers are casual labourers and not permanent staff – in spite of admitting many had been working there for more than 10 years.
And, said company manager, Fazel Bassa, casual staff would benefit from labour brokers because they would receive benefits such as sick leave and “even uniforms”. He also denied workers would receive less than the minimum wage.
But disgruntled workers gathered outside the premises yesterday were not convinced. They said they would not return to work until their demands had been met and agreements made in writing.
Under the glare of armed security guards, the group yesterday staged a protest outside Trade Port’s premises, accusing the company of reneging on an earlier agreement to increase their wages.
“We are treated like dogs where we have to come every day and ask for work because they don’t want to register us,” said one worker, whose views were echoed by others.
“Many of us have been working at this company for 10 years and still we are called permanent casual and are not even paid a living wage.
“Last year we were paid between R70 and R90 a day then they promised us R100 after we went on strike. Now the labour broker company tells us we will only get R62 per day.
“The company even keeps our IDs and many of us could not even vote on election day. When we try to complain they just swear at us and tell us to go away and find another job.”
They even overloaded their trucks which transported workers, and a worker died this week when the company’s truck was involved in an accident. “They don’t care about us, they threaten us because they know we are desperate for work,” said the worker.
In response, Bassa said staff were being provoked by leaders of the organisation Mazibuye African Forum, which claimed to represent the affected workers.
“That organisation is targeting us because they are anti-Indian. We completely reject the allegations that we kept worker IDs. We returned all their ID books and even closed the company on election day so that our workers could go and vote.
“We are part of the ANC so will never deny the workers the right to vote. We have tried to provide jobs for people and decided to outsource our casual labour by bringing in labour brokers so that their wages and conditions of employment could be better regulated.
“It’s true one of our vehicles had an accident this week and unfortunately a worker died. We are investigating the matter. We want to resolve the issues and are prepared to sit down with the workers and even Mazibuye if they have something legitimate to say,” added Bassa.
Mazibuye spokesman, Zweli Sangweni, dismissed the criticism and accused the company of modern-day slavery.
“We are not anti-Indian, in fact we are working closely with a number of Indian companies to uplift people from poor areas.
“But the reality is that the only people affected by the pay cuts at Trade Port are Africans,” said Sangweni.
Mazibuye intends taking up the issue of the workers with Premier Senzo Mchunu.
Approached on the company’s claim of close ties with the ANC, provincial ANC secretary, Sihle Zikalala, said even if businesses supported the ANC, the party would never condone any violation of labour or other laws.
“The ANC does not get involved in labour disputes between private businesses and its employees but we do take the allegations being made very seriously,” he said.
“We will ask the minister of labour to intervene as a matter of urgency to fully investigate the workers’ allegations and we will also engage with both sides to find a solution.
“They must be given an opportunity to put forward their side of the story before any action is taken,” Zikalala said.
Trade Port and Mazibuye have also approached eThekwini councillor and prominent ANC member, Fawzia Peer, to broker an agreement.
Peer confirmed she would set up a meeting this week between the parties, including Mazibuye.