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Experiencing the life of a feather plucker

Posted : 14 October 2011

Khanyi Ndabeni spent two weeks working undercover at Sovereign Foods in Uitenhage – much of it spent in the queue of job-seekers outside the factory. She tells of her experience.

JUNE 22 was the day a R100 note tucked inside my ID book managed to secure me a job as a feather plucker in one of the country’s biggest chicken factories.

It was the end of my seven days of being part of the many job-seekers who queue every day from 5.30am until 6pm at the labourer’s gate of Sovereign Foods, desperately hoping to get a job.

Just inside the gate is a Wendy house from which labour broker Barco, who hires the bulk of the chicken factory’s workforce, decides who will work today and who will not. Many desperate job-seekers resort to bribery in a bid to get a foot in the door.

I had begun to panic because securing work was taking longer than I had expected, but my friend, who also ended up bribing a broker official, encouraged me to persevere as spaces were continually being created.

She told me that after queuing for an incredible three months, a R50 note discreetly handed over to a Barco official had secured her a job in the frozen chicken department at the factory.

As much as I was excited to go in, part of me felt sorry for the people I was leaving behind. We had stood together in the rain, walked together to the taxi rank about 3km away and always encouraged each other not to give up.

We had prayed regularly that God would open someone’s heart and let us in, or that one of the workers would be sick or late for work so we could take their place.

On my first day, I was told I would be working the 6am to 4.30pm shift. I was given overalls, ear protectors, a hair net and gloves, but had to search the toilets and dustbins for an old pair of protective gum-boots before I was allowed into the factory. I finally found a pair someone had thrown in a bin. They were worn out and too small, but I managed to get them on somehow.

They were difficult to walk in on the wet, slippery factory floor, but I was nevertheless ready to get started.

The chickens were hung from their feet, while still alive, and moved along a conveyor belt to their doom: their throats were slit by four or five men with big knives.

The birds then moved onto a feather-plucking machine. When they emerged, my job, along with several colleagues, was to pick off the remaining feathers.

But it seems my talents do not extend to plucking feathers. I was not fast enough, so my supervisor, Thobeka Sizila, moved me to the “walkie talkie” (heads and feet) section, where I had to clean, scale and pack the little appendages.

Although I worked within a group, we seldom spoke to each other. However, my older colleagues did advise me to wear at least three pairs of warm trousers, three jerseys and a woollen hat under my uniform to protect me from the cold inside the factory.

My first break after working more than five hours was less than 15 minutes. We had been penalised because the group had not managed to finish cleaning the heads and feet in the allotted time.

The pressure to work as quickly as possible often prompts workers to “cheat” when the supervisor is not around. When there was a shortage of heads and feet in a bag, my co-workers would take ones that had fallen onto the floor, even if they had clearly been stepped on several times.

All we cared about was filling the required packets by the end of the shift, so we could go home on time.

But I stopped this on my second day after our induction officer, Kennedy, told us about a worker who had been suspended for two weeks after she was caught collecting chicken pieces with her boots.

It was also an induction where we learnt about accidents which had been happening inside the factory.

Kennedy advised us to be extra careful because some workers “have been lured by line supervisors to operate machines without proper training and ended up hurting themselves”.

On my second day, I had to see the doctor on site to have a pregnancy test, an ear test and a full medical examination.

I also signed my casual employment contract, which no one gave me a chance to read.

While my new friends whom I had lined up with at the job-seekers gate were congratulating me, all the workers I spoke to had a negative attitude about the company.

Complaints were mostly about salary, tea breaks, health and safety, abuse by managers who could easily dismiss workers, and no night shift allowance.

Another source of great bitterness was that the majority of coloured and African workers use the labourer’s gate which is situated at the back of the factory, while the permanent staff – mostly white – use the main gate at the front of the factory in Kruis River Road in Uitenhage. There was a strong feeling of racial disharmony.

One worker remarked: “Here a chicken is more important than a human being. The reason we are here is that jobs are scarce.”

It was probably those stories which saw two of the women I was employed with quit.

I persevered for five days – four day shifts and one night shift – before I felt I had collected enough information to quit.

My salary was a meagre total of R275, of which my broker, Barco, deducted R25 for the inconvenience of having to pay me cash. I received no extra pay for my night shift.

I worked for 40 hours. My contract stated I should be paid 7.04c an hour, but the company only paid me for 38.75 hours.

Law-breaking found

Last modified on 2011-07-28 13:38:12 GMT. 0 comments. Top. Edit topic.

A SURPRISE inspection of Sovereign Foods by the Labour Department – following The Herald’s investigation into working conditions – has found the company is contravening several labour laws.

The department’s provincial spokesperson, Vuyokazi Mbanjwa, said the inspection found the employers were contravening five labour laws.

Contraventions are:

SECTION 17 OF THE BASIC CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT ACT: It states that every employee working between 6pm and 6am must be compensated by an allowance or reduction of hours and that transport must be available.

The employer should also inform employees of any health safety hazards and right to undergo examination.

The department said officials had found information regarding minor injuries recorded on the files of employees. The department would now deploy its compensation fund office to investigate further.

SECTION 16 OF THE EMPLOYMENT EQUITY ACT: It states an employer must take reasonable steps to consult and attempt to reach agreement with a representative trade union, or, if there is no union, employee representatives.

SECTION 19 OF THE EMPLOYMENT EQUITY ACT: It states the employer must collect information and conduct an analysis of its employment policies, practices, procedures and the working environment, in order to identify employment barriers which adversely affect people from designated groups.

SECTION 20 OF THE EMPLOYMENT EQUITY ACT: It states the employer must prepare and implement an employment equity plan, with time- frames, which will achieve reasonable progress towards equity in that workforce.

SECTION 21 OF THE EMPLOYMENT EQUITY ACT: An employer with 150 or more workers must submit a report to the director-general on the first working day of each October.

Should employers not comply with legislation, they would be liable to a fine of R500000, Mbanjwa said.

On Sovereign Foods, she said: “We will give the company a few months to rectify their mistakes before we go back again.”

Mbanjwa said that in the past 12 months the Uitenhage Labour Department had dealt with 12 complaints from Sovereign Foods workers.

“Four of those cases are still being investigated and one was referred to the CCMA. The remainder – six regarding the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and one regarding the Unemployment Insurance Act – were all settled,” Mbanjwa said.

There was no law stipulating how long an employee could work as a casual.

Sovereign Foods’ spokesperson, Sanjay Raghubir, said the company was in the process of working out shifts that would be convenient for all workers, and would possibly scrap night shifts.

He said The Herald’s investigation had come when there was high production. Staff were needed to work extra hours, hence breaks had been reduced. He said although workers were in the factory for 10 hours, they were entitled to 45-minute breaks after five hours.

“Employees work 90 hours a fortnight. There are days when workers are asked to work extra hours but they are compensated with overtime pay.”

Raghubir said that with the assistance of labour brokers Barco, Sovereign Foods would draw up an agreement with taxi drivers to ensure workers were transported home should they be required to work night shift.

In a later statement from chief financial officer Chris Coombes, he insisted Sovereign and Barco complied with all aspects in respect of the conditions as prescribed in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 1997 (Act No 75 of 1997) as so far as it relates to wages and allowances.

“In terms of the prevailing legislation, Barco is paying the staff component which is on permanent night shift a dedicated night shift allowance.

“They do, however, also pay a shift allowance to the other workers who may work one week nightshift during a fortnight period … the consolidated effect of the allowance we pay by far exceeds the minimum allowance that may be required.”

Coombes said the company tried to ensure all workers were treated fairly, paid at least the required wage and received the allowances to which they were entitled.

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