Don't boycott Woolworths

Georgina Guedes

When I saw the fervour with which tweets were flying around Woolworths' racist policies, I thought that preference had been given to a white person somewhere. How wrong I was.

It turns out that Woolworths instead gives preference to black candidates for certain advertised positions in the organisation. Now forgive me if I'm not horrified by this, but I thought this is exactly what companies in South Africa are supposed to be doing.

Calling in the experts

Because I am not a labour expert, I called a contact of mine, Linda Gouveia, a labour consultant at The Labour Workshop, to get clarity on the situation. She confirmed for me what I believed to be true:

-    That an organisation's staff profile should reflect the demographics of our country.
-    That all things being equal, preference should be given to black candidates for a position if it has been earmarked as a BEE position.

She did, however, point out to me that the spirit of the Employment Equity Act is to try to integrate more black people into the South African workforce, and not to fire white people to replace them with black staff, as has been tested in our courts in other high profile cases.

Neither of us had seen the exact wording on the Woolworths website, but a quick search showed that any advertised positions earmarked as "BEE" come with the wording "In accordance with Woolworths' Employment Equity approach, preference will be given to candidates from designated groups."

Now, it's possible - or even likely - that Woolworths has done a clean-up of their jobs site since the storm broke on Tuesday, but in the current form, there's nothing legally wrong with what they're saying. If the positions were previously advertised as “for black applicants only”, then they were definitely operating on shaky legal ground as no position is allowed to be advertised to exclude non-designated groups.

Preference not a problem

However, I'd also like to point out that this whole "preference" story is a bit of a euphemism. While Woolworths may have been remiss in not appending the appropriate wording to their job ads, even if it were in place, their employment policies remain the same. "Preference will be given to candidates from designated groups" means that a suitably qualified black person will get the job.

Unlike the people at Solidarity and Steve Hofmeyr, I'm not particularly perturbed by this. White South Africans make up just over 20% of our population. In just about any study you look at, like this one at Wikipedia, whites make up a greater proportion of the workforce than they do of the population. We're still not suffering terribly much.

I feel that employment equity policies are needed to redress the imbalances of the past. I don't think that white people should be fired to employ black people, but I do believe that without legal pressure, white-dominated workforces will continue to be white dominated. If entry level jobs tend to be more available to black candidates so that they can grow within the organisation and trickle up to infiltrate the white-heavy management levels, then so be it.

Any big organisation in South Africa is required to present an employment equity plan and reports to the Department of Labour, in line with agreed targets. Woolworths is doing exactly that. Perhaps they need to be a little more careful about their wording, but I believe that their intentions are sound. I would prefer not to waste my time applying for a position than to go through some facade for the sake of legality, and still not get the job.

So, I certainly won't be boycotting Woolworths. I support their employment equity policies, I earn points on my Woolies Black credit card and you can't beat their roast chicken.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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