Thursday, 17 October 2013

Shoprite: ‘Poster Corporation’ of Slave Wages

After years of enjoying huge tax rebates offered by politicians, today Shoprite profits from paying poor wages and an array of severe working conditions including using surveillance cameras to intimidate workers in its Zambian outlets 

Shoprite accused of slave wages, rakes millions of dollars but pays peanuts

By Nyalubinge Ngwende
It is a Supermarket chain that has all the settings of modernity: security cameras, air cons, huge freezers packed with imported and local meats, fish prawns, yoghurts and ice creams. High rising compartmentalised store shelves are jam-packed with all sorts of groceries that afford customers to buy under-one-roof.

Young men and women adorned in white shirts, with pocket tags bearing their name, and blue trousers and skirts as uniform sit in long lines of IBM computerised counters, swiping items and punching keys attending to hoards of customers.

This is Shoprite Stores, one of Zambia’s biggest supermarkets, imported from South Africa via free market economy policies of the 90s, with 100 percent tax rebates for their first five years entry into Zambia. 

It first entered Zambia under as a joint venture under the Shoprite Checkers flagship. But after years of enjoying tax holiday expired, Checkers broke away and relocated to South Africa upon failing to arm twist government to extend the tax holiday amid threats of mass job losses. 

Now just known as Shoprite Stores and promising ‘low prices always’, though that can be proved untrue, the supermarket store is listed on Lusaka and Johannesburg Stock Markets, operates 1,200 corporate and 270 franchise outlets in 16 countries with 18 outlets in Zambia employing 2000 workers.

To the jobless school leavers who come around and admire their young colleagues on the counters, it appears a prestige to work in this mall. But it is not.

Today Shoprite stands as a true description of ‘Poster Corporation’ of international firms in the middle of a scandal of paying slave wages to its workers while raking huge profits from its operations in Zambia. 

This week, since October 11, 2013 the chain store has remained closed to business as workers faced off with management demanding for a pay rise.

70 percent of the prestige that drives on the streets of the capital Lusaka, tourist town of Livingstone, the mining towns of Kitwe, Ndola and now the booming Solwezi all stash out their bundles of money shopping here. 

It is reported in the local Daily Mail newspaper that Shoprite in the third quarter of 2012 posted a huge turnover of 14.4%, equivalent to US$8.2 billion.

However, while the government set minimum wage is at K1,132.40 for shopkeepers, Shoprite pays its employees on the shop floor a paltry K400.00. Workers get wages in instalments of K70.00 ($14) per week, which translates into $2 dollars per day—money that can hardly buy one loaf of bread and bottle of coke, later on feed an average family of six. Newcomers get even lesser than that.

This wage paid by the chain store is scandalous because it is far below the basic needs basket for the country according to the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, which puts the monthly basic needs of a family at above K3,000.00. 

Zambian Labour minister Fackson Shamenda has instructed the supermarket chain owners to honour the government minimum wage and the collective agreement between the outlet and workers union representatives. “Time for slave wages in Zambia is long gone,” Shamenda said when he addressed Shoprite workers in Lusaka, urging them to return to work.

Shoprite workers protest over slave wages
The protests over the slave wages might pass and workers may get a rise in pay. 

But working in Shoprite still has its dubious side that diminishes any high expectations for an admirable career and compensation. 

With long queues that go on for hours, and not allowed to take a break, eat or drink from the counter until lunch hour, there have been incidents when young workers have staggered from the counter and passed-out due to lethargy.

Incidents have gone unreported, and regardless of whether you have worked for years for the chain store, your departure is rewarded by a handshake by colleagues while management is happy to replace you quickly without gratuity.

The workers at the back store, on the floor packing shelves and the counters are watched from a control room through fish-eye cameras. If any of the workers is seen to be strangely uneasy, they are pulled out and taken into a cubicle where a female manager can search a male worker down to the pants while male managers do the same to female workers. 

Though most of these searches have turned to be out of mere suspicions, they have been used to intimidate workers and sometimes as grounds to fire them when they protest to be subjected. Others have left after being humiliated. Yet to be confirmed, male bosses threaten female workers of dismissal to coerce them into sex.

While sympathy cannot be too much for the men and women working in Shoprite and whose livelihoods are dependent on the monthly pay from the Boers, the brutal truth remains: the supermarket store will never pick them out of the present circumstance of need and want. 

This is true about shopping mall jobs around the world and Zambia is no exceptional.

Shopping malls are vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy within and across countries from which they get their supplies. Therefore shops cannot be like government in conditions of service of employing on permanent and pensionable basis.

Government and unions should start looking at corporate social responsibility initiatives that are not a bribe and remain a joke to addressing poverty. Instead of donations of consumable goods worth millions of rands to poor communities, Shoprite must be made to start putting in place social and career development incentives for its workers.  

Unions representing the workers must also become more accountable. They milk a lot from these workers in terms of member contributions, which the leaders use to enrich themselves at the end of the day while workers remain wallowing in slave conditions. 

Further incentives can include small loans for vocational education or prise open the supermarket arrangement to enable workers gain shares so that they start getting dividends from the profits they make from the sweat of their brow. Workers must be helped to graduate from shop keeping to becoming shareholders.

It is folly to continue thinking that all jobs, including those for shop keepers, must become permanent and pensionable. 

The vagaries of economics and the economy do not just allow. Government do not run out of business and never fold up when badly hit by factors of the economy, they turn to adjustments like wage freeze, retrenchments and so on until when things look up again. The other thing is that government also spends money they do not make through selling—it spends other people’s money. 

But similar economic pressures are not kind to commercial ventures like supermarkets.  Once profits hit the bottom, repercussions are far reaching and always lead to closures.

Sitting at the counter swiping packs of diapers, bread and perfumes requires no professional certificate, so there is no skill to pay for.

Debating on Zambia People’s Pact Facebook social media, Joel Mufalali argues that shop keeping jobs must be part time:

“Do you know that jobs from these chain supermarkets where not meant to sustain anybody. They were meant for school leavers […] G12 and those college scholars to raise money through part time work. They can’t pay you like free money the gov [government] is paying to civil servants. The solution is to go to school study and get a better job”.

The ‘one-thing mama-told-me saying’ that ‘you will never get rich by working for someone else’ should also start being lived to the letter by both government and union leaders representing these workers.

A friend knows a Zambian who used to work as a supervisor in Shoprite. Today he has opened his own mini-mart at Mansa Spectre Filling Station. He went to work for Shoprite not to get pension, but to understand how the mall operated and he resigned to start his own shop.

Opportunity is begging for another such worker sweating in the restaurant in Shoprite to do the same: understand the ingredients in the various menus; stash them in the back pocket or under the bra and walk out smiling to start an own business. This is better than sit-by and dream that the mall owners will give you a better livelihood one day.

Any slight improvement in wages or conditions of service should not be seen as a solution to the real predicament of those with high expectations of making a life career in Shoprite. 

It must instead bring the workers to a realisation that no matter how big and prestigious the supermarkets may appear a shop keeping job in Shoprite and other stores elsewhere will never stop to be a dead end and slave type.

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