On November 30 2010, at least 42 abattoir workers were locked out of Robertson Abattoir* in the Western Cape. They had worked for Robertson Abattoir until that day.
The workers were locked out for refusing to comply with Robertson Abattoir’s demand that they slaughter 850 sheep a day. This was 250 carcasses in excess of the 600 carcasses required by their contracts.
Immediately prior to their lockout, they were working from 7am to 5pm, and in accordance with their contracts of employment.
This is a story about farm workers who were dismissed and left without any source of income, not for striking or even engaging in a go-slow, but for refusing to work more than 10 hours a day.
Workers were forced to work 18 hour days in the past when trying to satisfy the demand of 850 carcasses a day. One of the workers explained: “You don’t have time left for your own home and family because you have to start work at 6am and leave work at 1am the next morning. The hours were too long, and your body could no longer bear the work.”
If they were late for work the following day, they would receive warnings.
Robertson Abattoir threatened to decrease workers’ wages or to dismiss them if they did not comply with the 850-carcass target. At the time, the workers were earning about R105 for the 14 hours they worked in a day. Their wages were not reduced. They were fired through the lock out.
Dismissal and cover-up
Although the workers were locked out of the abattoir and not permitted to work again, Robertson Abattoir proceeded to hold disciplinary hearings for the workers.
The workers called in their union, the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union.
Neither the workers nor their union representatives were permitted to attend the first round of these disciplinary hearings.
The workers argue that the disciplinary hearings were shams, and an attempt to legalise the lockout, which, under the Labour Relations Act, is an unfair method of dismissing workers.
Contempt of court
Several days after the workers were dismissed, the union obtained a court order that compelled Robertson Abattoir to allow the workers to return to work.
On returning to the abattoir, the workers were refused entry again. When the workers were allowed onto the premises after several days of waiting, they were made to sit idle while newly employed workers from Paarl slaughtered the sheep. They were ultimately forced out.
In early 2011, the workers took their dismissal to the Labour Court.
In March 2015, almost four years after the institution of legal proceedings, and a gauntlet of delays, the workers presented their case to the Labour Court sitting in Cape Town.
The workers explained their inhumane working conditions. The workers also explained that, having recently unionised, they were targeted by the abattoir owner.
Three days after the workers closed their case, and before Robertson Abattoir could answer any of the allegations, the court dismissed the workers’ case.
The court found that the workers were not dismissed through a sudden lockout on 30 November 2010, and agreed that they were dismissed through the subsequent disciplinary hearings. As a result, the court absolved Robertson Abattoir of any wrongdoing.
The technicality of dates and the holding of disciplinary hearings after the lockout obfuscated the issue of whether or not the workers were dismissed in unfair circumstances, including where they were working according to their contracts of employment.
The workers have appealed the decision of the Labour Court, and the case is currently with the Labour Appeal Court.
The lockout is one of the many examples of imbalance in employment relationships in the agricultural sector in the Cape.
In the months following their dismissal, the workers found it impossible to find other work in the town of Robertson, and believe that they were cast out for being “union men”.
Most of the workers would set out every day looking for work in other towns. The combination of rural geography and the lack of any public transport in the region, meant that the workers were forced to hitchhike up to 40 kilometres every day in search of work.
The fortunate ones would get picked up by labour brokers, or would find short-term piece jobs. The rest would return home to their families in Nkqubela, the township in Robertson, empty-handed.
Some of the workers have, only in the past two to three years, found employment again. However, these remain difficult years for them. Many of the workers were highly skilled having received training and been subject to regular inspections, but now work as low-paid general workers. Others could only practice their trade by uprooting and leaving Robertson. A few of the dismissed abattoir workers continue to grasp at tenuous part-time jobs under exploitative and unregulated casual systems of employment.
The workers, even if they win their case, will continue to work under similarly unequal conditions for as long as they live in the rural Western Cape. One of the reasons for this is that the fleeting moments of industrial action in the agricultural sector have been quickly suppressed.
Since the De Doorns Farm Strikes in 2012, there has been no major farm worker strike, despite the enduring poor conditions and the fact that even the increase in their minimum wage in the wake of De Doorns has not translated into worker power or even a living wage.
The latest sectoral determination sets a farm worker’s daily wage at a minimum of R128.26 (an increase of only R8). The increase was triumphantly reported as progress, when in reality it was just an increase for inflation, and lower than normal.
In addition to the difficulties of mobilising workers in the sector, any worker-driven attempts to publicise their struggles have fallen flat. There has been no buy-in from South African consumers, and no expression of solidarity with the people who produce our meat, fruit, vegetables and wine. This is not because of an absence of consumer power, which has shown itself in concerns around food quality and environmental sustainability.
Hopefully increasing appeal to the establishment through litigation will pierce at South African apathy towards rural people’s struggles and our disproportionate interest in questions of animal welfare, quality and food safety.
The appeal will be argued on Tuesday.
» In 2015, Robertson Abattoir changed its name to Robertson Farm Assured Meat (Pty) Ltd. However, it is still under the same ownership and continues its business supplying meat to major South African retailers. It lists its concerns as animal welfare, quality and food safety.