UPDATED: Wits food vendor workers protest

Workers and students protesting against alleged exploitation by franchise owners

STRIKE: Workers and students protesting against alleged exploitation by franchise owners                                                                                                                                                                            Photo: Nasya Smith

UPDATED: Protesting workers from food franchises at Wits have met with their bosses to give their demands and will go back to work as they await a response next week.

“We have pitched our needs, demands and grievances to our bosses and we are waiting for responses and resolutions by next week Thursday,” said Thandiswa Yaphi, a protest leader and worker at Sizzlers.

Nicholas Matthes, a member of Wits Services, had helped facilitate Friday afternoon’s meeting and said the issues were sensitive with “many contributing factors.”

 

By Nasya Smith, Aarti Bhana and Leanne Cumming

Workers from food franchises on campus launched a lunchtime protest in the Matrix on Friday complaining that their working conditions are exploitative.

The singing and dancing workers were soon joined by some students during the protest as they forced the closure of Matrix shops.

Thandiswa Yaphi, who works at Sizzlers and is one of the protest leaders, said that some of the workers have been employed by food franchises on campus for over fifteen years but still do not have a contract. Some of the workers that do have contracts, allegedly have to adhere to strict bathroom times and still receive a wage below the legal minimum wage.

Yaphi said that the Labour department is not assisting them in dealing with their problems.

The protesting workers are also unhappy that they were not included in an insourcing agreement with Wits workers that topped-up salaries to a minimum of R4,500.

Akies Berdanis, owner of Zesty Lemonz, said that all food franchises on campus operate independently from the university and his employee’s pay is the same as in any other Zesty Lemonz franchise. Berdanis admitted that not all franchises on campus were aligned with regulations of the Bargaining Council, an association of staff and employers, last year but apparently most have “come to the party” since then.

When asked about the bathroom regulations, Berdanis said that the franchises merely ask if employees could avoid going to the bathroom during busy hours, but says “we are human, if you have to go you have to go”.

The protests are continuing and the workers are currently having a meeting to discuss the way forward.

Outsourced workers plan protest with sacked president

 

WORKERS AID: MJL Electrical workers outside the Great Hall before they got in to the Vice Chancellor’s Town Hall meeting last month. Photo: Sibongile Machika

WORKERS AID: MJL Electrical workers outside the Great Hall before they got in to
the Vice Chancellor’s Town Hall meeting earlier this year. Photo: Sibongile Machika

Axed SRC president Mcebo Dlamini and Wits workers are planning a protest at the Great Hall today in solidarity with fellow outsourced workers.

The protest action will happen throughout lunch hour, but protestors say they will continue the strike for as long as it takes to get a positive response from management.

“I hope they will disturb the exams so that the university can take them seriously,” Dlamini said.

Wits university management has been in disputes over outsourced workers formerly employed by Wits contractor MJL Electrical. MJL workers have made several allegations against the company, including non-payment of salaries as well as tax fraud.

Dlamini said that the companies that the university enters into business exploit black workers. “The university is failing to protect those workers,” said Dlamini.

Richard Ndebele, of MJL Electrical, said the workers have met with Wits management several times  yet no resolution has been found.

“We want Wits to consider a company that can absorb us, we’ve even suggested the names of companies that can do that but they don’t want to instead they (Wits) say it’s not their responsibility to do something for us,” said Ndebele.

Prof Beatrys Lacquet, the deputy vice chancellor of infrastructure and operations at Wits, has said that the university has paid what it owes MJL Electrical and the responsibility for the workers is on the company, not the university.

 

MJL workers are not the only outsourced workers to be unhappy with their lot at Wits. These workers, including those from Servest andUkweza, said they took a resolution on Friday that they will would protest in solidarity of MJL workers.

Ukweza worker, Tanya Khumalo* said she is supporting the strike because when workers from Ukweza were fired, workers employed by other outsourcing companies rallied in support of their reinstatement.

“Le rona tlamayile re ba thuse, batlo thola mosebetsi eming je ka rona bari thusitse, [We have an obligation to help them get other jobs, just like we were helped],” said Khumalo.

 

*Not real name.

Sign or forever hold your piece job

ON THE JOB: Business as usual for Wits cleaner. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

ON THE JOB: Business as usual for Wits cleaner. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

Desperate to keep their jobs, Wits cleaners say they signed contracts which they were not given time to read – making them all temporary workers for the next three months.

New company

Ukweza took over from Supercare as the new company to whom Wits has outsourced its cleaning services. Cleaners have claimed for years that Supercare treated them unfairly. Wits Vuvuzela spoke to several cleaners about the new contracts, which were signed during the university break.

New contracts [pullquote]“We had no time to read the contracts, but we were scared to lose our jobs so we just signed”[/pullquote]

Maggie* said all the workers were called in on a Saturday to sign the new contracts. The workers were not given copies of the contracts or even given time to read through what they were signing.
“We had no time to read the contracts, but we were scared to lose our jobs so we just signed,” said a visibly upset Johanna*. Once they had signed, she said they were given a thick document to take home and read through. It set out the terms of their contracts.

Temporary work

Only at this point did the cleaners realise they would be working on a temporary basis for three months, after which permanent positions would be given.

Agnes* who has worked at Wits for 13 years found this unfair, especially because the contract said they could be dismissed without warning during those three months. “I have been here for 13 years, how can I be a temp?”

Tokelo Nhlapo from the Workers’ Solidarity Committee said the new contracts also contained a clause which allowed the workers to be body-searched, something he thought would allow for “poor working conditions”.

The workers were forced to sign because they were desperate for employment, he said. They were left especially vulnerable because contract workers were not allowed to have a union. “The university is taking advantage of structural unemployment,” said Nhlapo.

Clauses and responses

Nhlapo also made these allegations on twitter. He was engaged by the vice chancellor, Prof Adam Habib, who replied: “Deliberately lying serves no purpose but destroys Wits reputation.”

Besides the brief interaction on twitter, Nhlapo said Habib and Prof Tawana Kupe had been reluctant to engage with the Workers’ Solidarity Committee, because it was not a “recognised body” in the university structure. “We will continue to engage them. If they don’t listen we will engage students.”

A source from Ukweza management, who asked not to be identified, said: “No-one forced them to sign. They could have left when Supercare left.”

He added that no-one could say whether Ukweza was good or bad yet. “As for the body searching, it hasn’t been implemented so I can’t say anything about that.”

Kupe told Wits Vuvuzela that the allegations made by Nhlapo and the cleaners were not true.
“We would not condone such a practice because we are committed to the upholding worker’s rights and protecting them from abuse,” Kupe said.

He added that fixed term contracts do not automatically make the workers temporary workers. Kupe said the university would engage the Workers’ Solidarity Committee after they took measures “to regularise their status.”

*Names have been changed since the workers requested that their identities be protected.