Africa’s largest retail chain, Shoprite, has been declared an ‘enemy of the state’ in Namibia, while it continues to be under pressure for alleged exploitative behaviour as well as the ill-treatment of its workers.
The impasse between Shoprite and its Namibian employees has been ongoing for three years, but things came to a head this week when the retail giant decided to sue its workers for R4.5 million in damages.
The unorthodox move, seen as an attempt to intimidate workers into submission, evoked emotions from all sections of the Namibian society. The government, labour unions, civil society, lawyers, political pressure groups and retired politicians all attended a march against the retailer, at Windhoek yesterday.
The Namibian government has also announced a consumer boycott against Shoprite and its subsidiaries in the country.
The hard stance comes after Shoprite decided to pile pressure on its workers by suing them for losses incurred during a disciplinary process it initiated. The R4.5 million damages the multinational company is claiming from its 93 workers, is so high that the workers’ combined yearly wages will not even come close to it.
Tables appear to have turned against Shoprite and it now faces a stern test after government officials, labour unions and members of the public showed solidarity with the workers.
Shoprite has refused to pronounce itself and remained mum on whether it is going to withdraw the suit and drop disciplinary proceedings against the 93 workers.
“It is a priority for the Shoprite Group to resolve 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,” Shoprite Group of Companies communications manager, Sarita van Wyk told The Southern Times. Van Wyk refused to shed more details on the stand-off.
Information seen by The Southern Times shows that workers are paid R2,500 each, despite working irregular hours. This means that the 93 workers make a combined R2.7 million in a year while being sued for R4.5 million. The company is demanding R288,000 it allegedly lost, in sales and profits, as a result of a strike the workers undertook during July 2015. The workers, in 2015, downed tools after the company unilaterally decided to only award the workers a R200 annual wage increase without consulting the workers nor their union representatives. The move angered the workers.
Shoprite is demanding a further R616,000 for the cost it incurred for the venue that was used to host the disciplinary proceedings, which have taken years to conclude; R3.4 million, which it paid in legal costs; and a further R189,000 it was allegedly forced to pay for temporary labour. Shoprite also wants 20% interest per annum added onto the R4.5 million.
The concerns raised in Namibia, about Shoprite’s behaviour, have also been aired in other SADC countries, like Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia.
Efforts to solve the situation amicably in Namibia were futile, and Shoprite then seized the opportunity provided by a divided labour movement to sideline the unions altogether. As a result, the company has for years ignored the workers and their union representatives’ demands when deciding on increases in salaries and benefits.
In April 2018, Shoprite shareholders ignored the Namibian government’s request for a meeting saying they ‘were too busy’ to meet officials from the Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment Creation.
Permanent secretary in the labour ministry, Bro-Mathew Shinguadja had told The Southern Times that government was hard at work to deal with Shoprite. It appears the gloves are now off, as Shinguadja said the government is now supporting the consumer boycott for the Shoprite/Checkers group and its subsidiaries.
During yesterday’s march in support of the workers, Shinguadja said the government has regarded the refusal by Shoprite to solve issues with its workers as “an insubordination to the country’s laws”.
The Shoprite march has also, for the first time, united the different labour unions in the country, who spoke with one voice in support of the affected workers.
Former prime minister, Nahas Angula and Vicky ya Toivo - the widow to Namibia’s liberation icon Toivo ya Toivo were also in attendance.
Shinguadja said all government ministries and agencies should start avoiding Shoprite as from 2 August 2018.
“Shoprite/Checkers group of companies if you were not listening before, then it’s better to listen now. If you were ignorant before, be better informed now, if you think you were strong before, be humble, if you were too proud not to care, start caring now. Consumer boycott should be supported until Shoprite comes to its senses,” he said.
Shinguadja added that while the focus is on Shoprite, action should be extended to other employers exploiting workers.
“Anti-trade unionism by some employers must end. To join or be affiliated to a trade union is a constitutional right. Abusive and non-compliant employers will be listed for appropriate actions. Trade licences should be conditional on better treatment of workers. There must be a revoking clause if that agreement is broken,” he said.
Secretary-general of the national union of Namibian workers Job Muniaro said they have given Shoprite until August 5, to withdraw the case for 93 workers.
“I am speaking on behalf of all the unions. We might have been divided in the past but we are now together in this. They (Shoprite) have until Sunday to withdraw the case. Shoprite has a disease of not listening, a disease of not respecting workers and the laws of this country. We have negotiated for three years but nothing was achieved. They have colonised the workers for long. Time to act is now.”
Namibian labour researcher and unionist Herbert Jauch said Shoprite management acts like colonial masters who are arrogant and think that they are untouchable.
Shareholders in Shoprite Holdings include the chairman, Christoffel Wiese who is the majority shareholder with 17.1 %, the Namibian Government Institution Pension Fund (GIPF) with 1.92%, Public Investment Corporation of South Africa with 12.0%, former CEO Whitey Basson with 1.52%, Government Pension Fund – Norway with 1.41%, Government Employees Pension Fund of South Africa (11.22%), among others.
GIPF told The Southern Times that the fund is a mere investor and does not directly get involved in Shoprite’s operations. This was because it acquired its shareholding on the stock exchange through an asset management firm.
Information provided to The Southern Times shows that the average worker at Shoprite Namibia still earns about R2,500 or less per month. As they receive no transport allowance, the workers spend between R480 and R960 per month on transport, depending on where they live. They also have to pay rent, on average R1,000 a month.
In contrast, Shoprite boasted that it made a turnover of over R130 billion in 2016. During the same year, former Shoprite CEO, Basson, was paid a total package of over R100 million, which included a bonus of R50 million and an annual basic salary of about R49 million. News of Basson’s salary drove Shoprite workers in South Africa to the streets in protest.