Africa’s Biggest Retailer

Shoprite/Checkers claims to be Africa’s largest food retailer, however, what the company does wish to be associated with is its gradual impoverishment of its employees as it gets larger than life. The South African company operates 641 corporate outlets, with 14 retail outlets across the continent (Africa) and according to the company’s website (www.shoprite.co.za), towards the end of 2003 Shoprite/Checkers will for the first time enjoy representation beyond the African continent when it opens its first supermarket in Mumbai in India.

What the website won’t tell you is that the company pays some of its employees R6.17 (US $1 trading at R7) an hour, while it reported revenue of R25 billion for the 12 months ended 30 June 2003. The website does not reveal the fact that the company pushes its employees to a point where they are forced to sign crooked contracts that reads as follows: “you agree that from time to time you may be scheduled and required to work up to 12 hours a day, inclusive of meal intervals, without overtime pay….” Normal working hours according to the South Africa labour law is eight hours a day. The contract goes further to say: “your usual meal interval will be one hour, to be taken at times determined by the company; [furthermore], you agree, when required to do so, to reduce your meal interval to 30 minutes.” Despite all of this, the local business press assures us that we have the most “rigid” labour laws the world has seen in years, and of course this is not good for us.
The contract continues: “you agree and consent to any medical examination or test and to any validated psychometric test required… you agree, voluntarily, and without limiting the aforegoing, to submit to any required, valid test to determine your HIV status….” I don’t even want to comment on the logical contradiction of that statement: “you agree, voluntarily, and without limiting the aforegoing, to submit…”

Taking alienation to ambitious heights, the contracts further reads: “you agree that the company has the right to monitor, access and review the utilisation of all computer, communication, or similar, equipment, including all and any email, voice-mail and other electronic records, and you consent to all such communications and records being accessed by the company in this regard.”

The contract was introduced at the beginning of this year, February, and makes it clear that even if a person had been working for the company for five years before the introduction of the contract they were being hired anew, the five years is irrelevant and does not count. “Your employment will commence on 1 February 2003 … during the first three months of your employment, your work performance and general suitability for employment within the company will be assessed … should you not meet the required standards, your employment may be terminated,” reads a contract of a worker who has been with the company for two years.

Part-time employees are the most affected by the contract. And a lot of part-time staff too. In South Africa, Shoprite/Checkers employs more than 36 500 part-time staff and about 23 000 permanent staff. Outside of South Africa the company employs about 3 800 permanent staff and 3 500 casual staff (1). It’s an ideal situation for any capitalist – operating at minimum costs while making maximum profit.

The company has 6 000 shareholders (2), and you can be sure they are not subjected to obligatory HIV tests, and furthermore, they all go on holiday whenever they feel like it – holidays that are paid for by thousands of poor people working unpaid overtime. 

While the poor are being humiliated, and exploitation intensified, Shoprite/Checkers CEO, Whitey Basson, earned a salary of R5.2 million plus a R3 million bonus for the financial period ending June 2003, according to the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU). In that same period the company shed 3 351 jobs. How these CEOs achieve sleep at night is a mystery.

In a move to create more markets for the wealthy few, the South
African president, Thabo Mbeki, together with a “business delegation” visited India earlier this month on a “free trade” mission. Free trade and new markets when translated into simple language mean increased profits for the rich, more monopoly and scarce jobs for the poor. What is interesting about this visit is that it came at a period when Shoprite/Checkers business operations in India are on its infancy – if there is a link between the two events or it’s just a mere coincidence is anyone’s guess. However, it’s very unlikely that it’s just a coincidence given the age of capitalism we live in whereby governments are reduced into salespersons by business for business (3). 

Last Week, Friday (24 October) Shoprite/Checkers workers took to the streets in protest against exploitative conditions they are subjected to and against a humiliating contract that they say they were forced to sign. Nigel Mabija, a shop-steward at one of the company’s retail outlets, says part-time workers were told to either sign the contract or resign.

At the march, when I asked one of the SACCAWU officials, (SACCAWU organised the march), that I’m not sure exactly what they were hoping to achieve with the march because it’s the African National Congress (ANC) and its neoliberal policies, the same ANC they are affiliated with, that’s creating an environment that makes it easy for these companies to exploit the poor. The official got indignant and asked “what kind of a journalist are you that points fingers?” Needless to say, the interview did not last long. 

In all this one thing remains clear and that is even though Shoprite/Checkers claims to be the “largest food retailer” in a continent where it’s estimated that about 20 million people live on the brink of starvation – the company is not planning to give away food for free to any starving people.

1. taken from the company’s website
2. from the company’s website
3. borrowed from The Silent Take Over, by N.Hertz.
4. from the South African official website: www.southafrica.info

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