When Sarah Khumalo* took to the streets of the Joburg CBD yesterday along with thousands of Shoprite employees, it was in solidarity with her colleagues who had been raped and attacked after leaving work in the dark.

“They make us work late - past 7pm and 8pm - but there is no transport,” said Khumalo, as she marched in a sea of red towards Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown. “We leave at 8pm and we can be gang-raped, or attacked, as others have been. It's not safe.”

She was part of the countrywide Shoprite strike yesterday, in which about 32000 staffers downed tools, according to the regional co-ordinator for the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) at Shoprite, Colin Tyhalidikazi. The strike was against “unilateralism and super-exploitation of workers within the company”.

Saccawu this week listed several cases where Shoprite workers had become victims of robbery and violent crimes while on the way to or from work since the company “unilaterally” changed its working hours, without consulting the union, it said.

Yet Shoprite had “flatly refused to take responsibility”.

These incidents include two Soweto female Shoprite employees who were gang-raped on their way home from work in two separate cases. “Two workers in the Makhado area had to resort to requesting hikes, for lack of transport after work. The female was robbed and badly injured while the male was shot dead.”

In another case, a female worker waiting for a taxi/transport around 4am in Durban was robbed by two thugs. “One of the robbers ran off and the other remained holding her at knifepoint and tried to rape her. The female fought back and in the process the thug was killed. A worker in Botshabelo had to walk in an unsafe veld on the way from work, since there was no transport, and she was killed.”

In their protest yesterday, joined by Cosatu and the Commission for Gender Equity, Shoprite’s workforce was replaced with “scab workers” to ease the last-minute Christmas shopping rush.

Shoprite workers demanded an immediate end and reversal of the unilateral changes to working hours and the provision and payment of safe transport for workers who worked night shifts.

Other demands included an immediate end to the reduction of working hours for part-time workers and the reinstatement of a group of employees from the Checkers in Sandton dismissed for protesting against these changes.

The dispute dates back to 2015. “The changed trading patterns mean trading beyond normal trading hours and further into the traditional rest periods. The company believes there is nothing wrong for workers to report for work in the very early hours of the morning or knock off late, with no safe and reliable transport arranged for them by the company.

“Management continues to reap the rewards of increased sales while shareholders enjoy huge dividends at the expense of the safety and well-being of workers,” the union said.

At the Shoprite protest in Cape Town, workers agreed. “Now people will really understand and believe us when we say the company that claims to be changing people's lives is actually exploiting us,” said one employee. “I'm a mother of two; I have a family that relies on me to support them and on the R400 I earn a week. It's not easy.”

The Shoprite Group said it respected the rights of employees to protest in a peaceful and lawful manner.

“It's a priority for the group to resolve the matters that have been discussed over a period of time through the appropriate channels in the interest of all our employees, as well as our customers.”

There were contingency plans to keep stores open and trading as normal as possible.

Meanwhile, Saccawu said striking members should prepare themselves for a “full-blown strike” if Shoprite failed to find a resolution within the next seven days.

“If our demands aren't met in the next seven days, we'll shut down all the stores - Pick * Pay, Makro, Game and all the others,” Khumalo warned.

She had worked at Shoprite as a part-time employee for the past 18 years, and earned around R600 a week. “How can you live like that?” she asked.

* Not her real name.

Saturday Star