“It’s hell’s kitchen,” say workers who claim conditions deteriorated since they joined union.

Workers at the Wits Medical School branch of Olives & Plates are complaining about being mistreated, harassed, verbally abused and victimised by the head chefs and management, and about inconsistent raises, low wages and bonuses.

The grievances were expressed at a meeting held by Olives & Plates workers and management, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) and the Medical School Council on Tuesday, April 24, at the Medical School campus, where Wits Vuvuzela was in attendance.

These 27 workers had joined Nehawu between October 2017 and March 2018 and included chefs, food servers, cleaners, cashiers and workers at the coffee bar.

Nokuthula Dlamini*, a chef, told Wits Vuvuzela that the staff had held a meeting in February to address the issues, however, none of the issues had been resolved and instead, the working conditions had since gotten worse.

“It’s hell’s kitchen,” Dlamini* said. “We are still working here because we have nowhere else to go. People are scared to speak up because they are scared of being threatened.”

Dlamini* said that the 27 (out of a total of 35) workers that were unhappy with the working conditions had taken their grievances to the Wits Nehawu branch and had been victimised since joining the union.

For example, the staff were eligible for a minimum R500 loan from the business, but since joining Nehawu, that benefit of a loan had been withdrawn.

“The owner confronted us and asked why we were taking internal issues outside of the workplace. You take that as a threat because you need that loan to survive,” Dlamini said.

Another chef, Michael Ramafo*, said that the workers had complained that their wages and bonuses were significantly low, and that overtime did not reflect in their paychecks, however, that complaint had still not been resolved.

“You can’t give someone with two children R3 000. We are underpaid. Our bonuses, which are given at the owner’s discretion, range from R50 to R300,” Ramafo said.

Secretary of Nehawu Wits branch, Tumishi Madihlaba, told Wits Vuvuzela that the workers were being subjected to basic human rights abuses and unfair labour treatment.

“Other Olives & Plates on other campuses have had incidents of mistreatment of workers but these were not at the rate happening at Medical School,” he said.

Madihlaba added that Nehawu had been escalating the Olives & Plates issues to the Retailers Forum since July 2016 to facilitate discussions to resolve the grievances. However, this did not happen as workers refused to sign the worker’s charter because it did not state a minimum wage.

“We also took the issue to Wits management to intervene in the matter but were at times told in meetings by a Wits management representative to stay out of the matter because it only made the situation worse and that their responsibility is in regards with complying with the lease between Olives & Plates and Wits.

“We are at a point where we are submitting a formal complaint to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to intervene, because clearly the Retailers Forum and Bargaining Council, which rules in favour of shop owners in all its cases, have no powers at all. The SAHRC deals with discrimination based on nationality as 24 out of the 27 Olives & Plates Nehawu members are foreign nationals,” Madihlaba said.

Further, according to Madihlaba, the workers were employed on a three-month contract which is renewed at the owner’s discretion, bonuses were not included in the contract while increases were dependent on the performance of the company.

Wits Vuvuzela asked one of the directors of Olives & Plates who runs the Medical School canteen, Apo Frangos, for comment but his reply was, “No comment. I am not in a position to comment.”

*Names have been changed.