How Namibian women are taking on the biggest food retailer in Africa
Fed up with low wages and punishing hours, Shoprite workers are locked into a struggle one of the most powerful companies on the African continent.
21 Mar 2021
In the evening, when the doors of Shoprite branches in the Otjozondjupa Region of Namibia close to customers, Emma* and her colleagues stay inside, re-shelving truckloads of stock. Employees are forbidden to leave until grocery items are packed away to the supervisor’s satisfaction. The stock often arrives from South Africa just before closing time. The additional hours will not be paid; Shoprite’s workers are ordered by their supervisors to “go the extra mile” to “gain experience”. It is not unusual for those tasked with this – most of them women – to arrive, exhausted, back at their homes close to midnight. While Emma is at work, her three-year-old toddler stays with neighbours; Emma often finds the household asleep when she is finally able to fetch her child.
Founded in 1979, Shoprite Holdings Ltd is the biggest retail chain in Africa, a multi-billion conglomerate founded in South Africa. Almost 3000 corporate stores are sprawled across 15 countries on the African continent with Namibia counting the second highest number of outlets after South Africa.
But behind the success story lies the widespread allegations of worker exploitation: limited breaks, poverty wages, gruelling hours and humiliation at the hands of managers who treat workers akin to slave labour. So far, so standard for big business. What lends the Shoprite saga a new twist is the workers, predominantly women, who are collectively organising across the African continent to demand better. It’s a battle that exemplifies a growing refusal to accept the continued inequality left by the legacy of apartheid-era settler colonialism – and one Shoprite workers are determined to win.
“What lends the Shoprite saga a new twist is the workers, predominantly women, who are collectively organising across the African continent to demand better”
Namene* has worked for Shoprite in the Khomas Region of Namibia under a six-month contract for almost four years now. She is just one of the many “permanent part-timers” (PPT) who the company keeps on their books via short-term contracts, with none of the protections that would come with permanent offers of employment. Their weekly wages lie between N$300-N$400 (equivalent to roughly £14.82), but like others, Namene alleges that Shoprite often further cuts these meagre salaries at company discretion. Depending on the location of the branch, workers can spend at least half, or sometimes more, of their weekly salary on their daily commute between home and work. Shoprite had no response to any accusations raised in this report when asked for comment.
For Namene and Emma, home in each one’s respective region is a shack on the outskirts of town. During the day, it provides little relief from the scorching sun, while the corrugated iron structures are ruthlessly cold during winter nights. Communities are vulnerable to rain, fire, police evictions and more. Their homes have no electricity and plumbing. The poor are mostly ignored, erased or neglected except for vigorous campaigning during election time.
Namene and Emma’s experiences are common stories among Shoprite’s workforce. They’re what led Namibian Shoprite workers to hold a nationwide strike on 23 December 2020, determined to bring an end to such exploitative working conditions. Through their worker’s union, the Namibia Food and Alliance Workers Union (NAFAU), employees demanded a 10 to 20% wage increase, housing and transport allowances, as well as permanent contracts for people employed longer than a year. Unbothered by the worker’s grievances, Shoprite hired seasonal employees to continue business as usual throughout the Christmas period. NAFAU approached the high court which then ordered Shoprite to stop breaking the Labour Act and violating strike rules, but Shoprite arrogantly ignored the order. Meanwhile, across the country, customer boycotts were met with intensified shop security or violent police involvement. At a Shoprite branch in Oshakati police beat protesters and fired rubber bullets into the crowd, injuring many and hospitalising three.
Due to the “NO WORK, NO PAY” principle, many strikers on PPT contracts ran out of transport money just days into the strike. Struggling to attend the picketing at her branch, but determined to continue the strike, Namene joined fellow strikers at outlets within walking distance of her home.
For the women who make up the large part of Shoprite’s striking workers, the demand for a living wage is vital. Many fear financial dependency on men in a society where gender-based violence (GBV) is so rampant and absent fathers are common. In Nambia, 53% of families are led by single mothers. A growing women’s rights movement is also putting ever more pressure on the government to address gender injustices; in 2020, large numbers of Namibia’s marginalised genders took to the streets to protest against GBV, femicide and call for the legalisation of abortion.
For many of the women, this was not their first industrial action against Shoprite in recent years. In December 2014, Shoprite workers belonging to unions that the company refused to recognise went on strike after they were denied their backdated salary increase. Then during wage negotiations in July 2015, Shoprite refused to bargain with the worker’s representatives and gave increases as the company saw fit, leading to a two-day worker’s protest. Some workers were unfairly dismissed after the strikes. Under the threat of job loss, the rest of the strikers suffered through a three-year-long disciplinary hearing, followed by a N$ 4.5m lawsuit against them in 2018.
“In 2017, management called police to jail Shoprite employees, one of whom was pregnant and another breastfeeding, for accepting tips from customers”
Even though worker’s strikes are still a regular feature in Namibia, they are often industry-contained and tend to garner less community support than during the anti-colonial labour movement of 1966-1990 when the worker’s struggle was tied to the national liberation struggle. Labour researcher and chairperson of the Economic and Social Justice Trust in Namibia, Herbert Jauch tells me the Shoprite saga set itself apart because, beyond the narrower issues of wage increases and benefits, the workers also exposed “crude exploitation”.
Since 2018, there has been transnational and increasing national solidarity with the workers. A national class consciousness also seems to be raised by the economic woes of the Covid pandemic and job losses in 2020, which followed the nation’s general loss of confidence in the government after Al Jazeera uncovered the “Fishrot scandal” in Namibia’s fishing industry in December 2019. Whistleblower Johannes Stefanssen, who worked for Samherji exposed how the Icelandic fishing company paid around N$103m in bribes to secure access to fishing rights, enriching a few – implicated are high-ranking government officials – at the expense of Namibia’s poor. The Namibian people are demanding better, but in a struggle with such skewed power dynamics, the Shoprite workers also call onto the government for assistance.
Importantly, workers are concerned that with the impunity Shoprite enjoys, the government is sending the message that foreign companies are welcome to abuse the Namibian people. Emma says that Shoprite is allowed to act “like it is in its own house”. Sadly, that description is reflected in Cape Town’s Shoprite 8 case from 2017, where management called police to jail women, one of whom was pregnant and another breastfeeding, for accepting tips from customers.
They face a powerfully influential foe. The man at the helm of Shoprite is a white South African former billionaire and business magnate. Until as recently as November 2020, for 41 years Christo Wiese led the giant company as chairperson and controlling shareholder. Before he dropped to his current millionaire status, after the collapse of Steinhoff International Holdings NV, Forbes counted Wiese as one of the wealthiest people on the planet with a $5.8 billion fortune in 2016, as well as the richest man in South Africa – his business interests also include the clothing chains Pep Stores” and Ackermans. Recent troubling revelations exposed Wiese as “an old friend and supporter of the National Party” – the white “Afrikaner” supremacist party that ruled South Africa from 1948 until independence in 1994. Allegations of him funding the racist party which institutionalised Apartheid policies are disturbing, especially since those policies were used to maintain “the [Black] African cheap labour on which [white] South African capitalism has always depended“. From the 1960s, The South African regime also transferred Apartheid policies to pre-independent Namibia.
“Apartheid settler colonialism has left Namibia and South Africa as two of the most unequal societies in the world, where a poor Black majority is still economically dependent on, and exploited by, a white capitalist class”
Apartheid settler colonialism has left Namibia and South Africa as two of the most unequal societies in the world, where a poor Black majority is still economically dependent on, and exploited by, a white capitalist class, decades after independence. Last year, the Shoprite Group made a record trading profit of R8.3 billion, jokingly earning the title “the winner of the lockdown” by hosts on South Africa’s 702 FM radio network. White-owned businesses maximise profits by maintaining racist colonial conditions of exploitation, even in the absence of direct political control. This neocolonialism appears in various forms in Africa through e.g. unequal trade agreements, foreign debt aid, multinational land grab, military operations etc. Shoprite’s business model embodies this.
Namibia is not the only country disgruntled with Shoprite either; Zambia has threatened to shut shop on the multinational exploiter and in Ghana the company has been accused of “apartheidism, bigotry and self-centeredness.”
Unlike their wealthy employer, striking Namibian Shoprite employees are unable to afford legal representation but they aren’t acting alone. Driven by the motto “The law in service to humanity”, the Nixon Marcus Public Law firm (NMPL) and also later its humanitarian branch “The Center for People’s Resistance” have assisted the workers in their battle since 2015. Lawyer Nixon Marcus argues for better union organising to improve strike efforts – particularly around collective bargaining, strategic timing of strikes and the mobilisation of the public. He suggests that strike preparations start earlier, months ahead of the strikes, if possible. More workers’ education, especially around their bargaining power, is required and Marcus highlights the importance of creating a workers’ support fund to keep strikers financially stable while on the picket line, as well as training Shoprite workers for union leadership positions. With women listed as 65% of the Shoprite Group’s overall employees, they must be represented at every decision-making level in these institutions.
As of January, a tentative agreement has been reached between Shoprite and their Namibian workforce. Some monetary concessions were made e.g. from the end of February, the company will pay permanent workers a monthly N$250 increase, while PPTs will receive an increase of N$1.28 per hour. Shoprite has also promised to pay a late-night shift of N$12 to those working after 8pm, but it still denies the workers housing and transport benefits. Namene still works as a PPT and at the beginning of February, Emma reported that permanent workers who had gone on strike at her branch had not been paid – even for days not included in the strike – while those who did not strike were paid on time. Both women say due to high unemployment they are essentially forced to still work for Shoprite but believe that the company is occupying space that could go to a potentially better employer.
The struggle against Shoprite’s unfair labour practices is not over and annual wage negotiations will take place later in the year, with workers still hoping to secure their 10-20% increase with benefits. For now, the fight continues in the courts where lawyer and partner at NMPL, Uno Katjipuka-Sibolilie, argued that even when ordered to stop Shoprite blatantly continued business with hired staff to undermine the strike. On the 11 February, Shoprite and its Namibian directors were consequently found in contempt of court and employees are eagerly awaiting the sentencing. Emma hopes that the court metes out a punishment to the Shoprite Group that is fitting retribution for its crime. “School has started. What must we feed our children? The sentencing must speak loudly on our behalf because right now it does not feel as if we are heard as Namibian citizens.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities