Workers attacked and beaten as strike at South African dairy giant Clover enters 12th week

Two workers abducted by goons “were held hostage and beaten in full view of the management inside the factory premises. Managers neither called the police nor the ambulance,” said union leader Mametlwe Sebei.

February 09, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Clover South Africa
22 November 2021: Striking workers outside Clover’s plant in Clayville. Photo: New Frame

On Monday, February 7, taxi-driving thugs attacked picketing workers at the Clayville plant of South Africa’s largest dairy employer, Clover, where 5,000 workers have been on strike since November 22.

Three of the injured workers were hospitalized. Two of them had allegedly been locked up inside the plant where they were beaten for hours with the alleged connivance of the management. Four people were arrested for carrying out this attack.

Video clips of the incident show the company’s security and other staff standing around, without intervening, even as the abducted workers were stripped, beaten and whipped with belts.

The General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), which have been leading the strike, hold Clover’s management responsible.

At around 6 p.m on Monday, three taxis with no number plates came out of the factory’s gate number two and tried to run into the picket outside by around 25-30 workers.

“While the workers were running in all directions, three of them were caught by the goons and forced into a taxi. Other workers went to rescue and managed to pull one off from the vehicle. But he got injured. Comrades took him to a hospital. The other two could not be saved. They were driven into the factory, and the security shut the gates on us,” Prince Ngoato, GIWUSA’s shop steward at the Clayville plant, told Peoples Dispatch.

“The management refused to allow us in. They asked us to wait for the police,” he added. The police, he says, must have gone in by around 6:30 with an ambulance. It was only by around 10 p.m that the workers were escorted out to the hospital.

Accusing the Clayville plant managers of being behind the attack, GIWUSA president Mametlwe Sebei alleged that they got the “gates open to allow the taxis to exit the premises, chase down the striking workers and bring the two workers inside the factory. They were held hostage and beaten in full view of the management inside the factory premises. Managers neither called the police nor the ambulance.” This, he claims, shows the complicity of the management.

Speaking on Clover’s behalf, Steven Velthuysen, Group Manager, Legal and Secretarial, told Peoples Dispatch in an email response: “As has been the case in the past, the facts at our disposal differ materially from that communicated by Unions to the public. We want to reiterate that at no time were any Clover employees involved in this incident. The taxi drivers involved do not work for Clover nor were they under any instruction from us to drive anyone, nor do we pay them.”

He further added, “As we understand, striking workers started throwing stones at Clover trucks at the Clayville branch.” Sebei insists that stones were pelted after the workers were attacked and abducted into the premises, and as a response to it. No stone-pelting had occurred before, he claims.

While Velthuysen claims that “Taxi drivers who transport passengers to and from the area became involved” without any instruction from the management, workers insist that the taxis, which had no number plates, came not from outside, but from inside the premises, grabbed the two workers, and drove them back in, whereupon the gates were shut by the security.

The same was put to Velthuysen in a follow-up mail, asking also why the security guard (seen in green vest in the video below) walks behind the goons who are dragging the already injured worker on the ground, without making a physical intervention.

Two security guards in this video appear to be requesting the goons to stop the beating, but make no physical intervention.

In several other videos of the incident, security as well as the many other people make no physical intervention.

“I can identify one individual who looks like a security guard (but who is not an employee of Clover). I cannot identify any others, but if there are, they are not employees of Clover and may well be security guards from other companies in the vicinity,” Velthuysen said in response.

“Why the security guard did not intervene I cannot comment on as I don’t have any context on the situation at the time – I can only presume that it was a very volatile situation and that he might have been outnumbered and thus fearful at the time,” he added.

Accusing the unions of “distributing misinformation at will,” he reiterated that “the taxis involved are not Clover workers nor are they contracted to us, nor working under our instruction, nor paid by us.”

This attack on striking workers is not the first such incident at Clover, Sebei reminds. In 2020, amidst a strike, when a worker was similarly abducted into the premises and beaten by taxi drivers, the Clover management had deemed it as a clash between taxi drivers and unions. It was not, he insists, explaining that the factory premises are very well guarded, and entry into or exit from it is not possible without the management’s connivance.

He added that “the unions have called for an urgent meeting with the trade union federations and taxi-drivers associations to stamp out this practice. The taxi drivers must…stand in solidarity with the workers, who are their main customers.”

In a joint statement, GIWUSA and FAWU said, “The taxis have been transporting scab labor to the Clayville Clover factory and are parking their taxis, without number plates, on the factory premises. Of late the scab labor has been sleeping at the factory and no longer require transport. It appears that Clover is now hiring the taxi drivers as thugs and hitmen to intimidate and attack Clover strikers.”

“The strike is far from over”

The attack comes around a week after the last meeting of the workers with the management. The management had appeared to be on the retreat, making several concessions including the offer to “reinstate 763 workers it retrenched in November 2021, with full pay for a further eight months,” the unions said in another statement.

“The unions disagree as the company still wants to cut their wages by 20%, thereafter. We will only agree to this if these workers are reinstated on full pay for the duration of the entire two-year collective agreement, with their wages to be reviewed as with all workers at the end of the collective agreement and on the basis of increases,” the statement said.

Clover also issued a new Section 189A (retrenchment) notice to the unions at the City Deep branch where the number of employees “likely to be retrenched” was revised down to nine from the planned 821 mentioned in the notice sent in August 2021.

“GIWUSA and FAWU are pleased to announce that the strike at Clover has forced management to back down on the mass retrenchment of workers at City Deep… (However) it is still the intention of Clover to relocate the City Deep Branch to Atlas Rd, which.. the Unions vehemently oppose,” the statement added.

“The major obstacle to the resolution of the strike is the company’s insistence that the workers and Unions accept the austerity measures which includes, amongst others, the salary reductions and freezes. The unions believe that none of these austerity measures are justified and there are alternatives.”

While the company has cited economic downturn as the reasons for the restructuring, unions have proposed alternative cost cutting measures such as scrapping the “R166 (USD 10.81) million loans it gives to its executive management.” The money should instead be used “to refinance the closing factories and maintain workers’ conditions.”

Unions also proposed that the pay of Clover’s CEO, Johann Vorste, be reduced from the current R40 (USD 2.60) million a year to less than R2 (USD 0.13) million. “The unions believe that Mr Vorster can still earn less than R2 million without falling into the same poverty and hunger that is the lot of our members,” their statement said.

The unions insist that if austerity is necessary, it should be imposed on the management and the shareholders whose “greed” has “manufactured” this crisis “at the expense of workers and farmers who built Clover for over 120 years.”

The unions pointed out that “before the take-over of CloverSA by the Israeli-based MILCO/CBC (in 2019), the company was very profitable. In 2018, headline earnings rose by 224.7%, cash generated by 303.6%, revenue reached  R8.3 (USD 0.54) billion; and operating profit was R611 (USD 39.78) million, representing a 94.3% increase as compared to the previous year.”

“This wealth which was created on the sweat, blood and toil of our members was creamed off by parasitic shareholders of Clover who voted for a 210.8% increase in dividend paid to themselves, whilst granting our members a pitiful 7% wage increase,” the joint statement said.

Condemning this “extravagance”, the unions called on shareholders to reimburse this money so that it can be invested to “refinance and recapitalise the closing operations.”

Negotiations between the Clover management and the unions have thus deadlocked. “The strike is far from over, if anything we are rebuilding the picket lines, and broadening our base of support across the organized labor movement and in communities,” the unions said.

“The support from the South African Communist Party and COSATU, which has since joined our War Council, is a major milestone, in our preparation for renewed offensive in the light of the recalcitrance of the Clover Management.”

(The article has been updated to reflect the responses of the management).