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Israel hatred sours drawn-out Clover strike

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Israel is being used as a political football by striking workers, unions, and the anti-Israel lobby in the protracted domestic labour dispute with Clover, which has entered its ninth week.

Clover was acquired in 2019 by a consortium called Milco SA, which is led by Central Bottling Company (CBC). CBC is an Israeli-based manufacturer and distributor of soft drinks, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.

The merger was complicated from day one as anti-Israel lobbyists attempted to scupper the much-needed R4.8 billion deal.

Essentially, when the merger was unfolding, Clover made commitments to the South African competition authorities to create more jobs and protect existing jobs. However, the company has now embarked on a series of retrenchments arising from the restructuring of its operations.

Disgruntled workers have downed tools for nearly 10 weeks in protest over, among other things, restructuring, non-payment of bonuses, retrenchments, job losses arising from crippling factory closures, salary cuts, and working conditions that have allegedly worsened over the past two years.

It’s messy, and the relationship between workers, unions, and Clover may sour further with no end in sight. The anti-Israel lobby has jumped on board from the start, lending its voice to the strikes.

It should be noted that job losses were identified by Clover before Milco approached it with a merger proposal.

Trade unions representing Clover workers, including the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, said hundreds of workers had already been dismissed, while hundreds more had accepted voluntary severance packages. They said more jobs were under threat.

Clover has reportedly said it has “explored all possible avenues to minimise retrenchments”, but cannot avoid lay-offs.

In a statement, the company said retrenchments were “necessary to enhance Clover’s resilience for the benefit of its collective stakeholders”. The company, it said, “had been subject to a difficult trading cycle for several years, where economic growth has been poor, costs have generally been rising above inflation, and consumer spending has been subdued. COVID-19 has added to these pressures and the uncertainty faced.”

Striking Clover workers marched through the Johannesburg city centre on 18 January, stripping Clover products from shop shelves including places like Checkers, and leaving them in shopping trolleys.

Last week, there were similar scenes of chaos at shops such as Pick n Pay selling Clover products in Observatory, Cape Town.

Among many demands, the workers are insisting that the company stop plans for further retrenchments and reinstate all workers. They also want it to be independent of the Israeli CBC. Calls have also been made for nationalisation of the company.

Political economist Phumlani Majozi said that while workers had a constitutional right to mobilise and push for their demands, it was important to look at what motivated this particular strike.

“The matter has been politicised, which is a bad approach from our unions, but it’s not surprising. Any labour dispute shouldn’t be politicised because then the dispute gets tainted. Going into the issue of Israel and Palestine isn’t going to help their members secure jobs,” Majozi said.

“Going into shops and causing chaos will obviously have a negative impact on Clover, and this will definitely have an impact on jobs and there will be more job losses. It’s sad that this issue is being politicised, and it’s sad there are some politically motivated movements that have joined in the strike to push their agenda. It’s disappointing.”

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) this week said it was “disturbed” by the “trite attempt” by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to exploit a South African labour dispute to pursue its own nefarious, antisemitic agenda.

SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin told the SA Jewish Report, “The retrenchments and wage cuts which have brought about the strike are, for BDS, merely an afterthought in its fervent pursuit of demonising Israel in cases where the connection can only be described as diluted.”

Polovin said Clover was owned by a subsidiary of Israel’s CBC, and it was patent that at its core, this was a local labour dispute.

“Lacklustre attempts by BDS have been made in an attempt to shoehorn Israel into the fray of this matter by stating unfounded conspiracy theories. Chief among these bizarre allegations is that Israeli companies are attempting to flood the market with Israeli dairy products in order to destroy local industry, akin to cases that are already plaguing the global South,” he said.

“Furthermore, BDS has accused Israel’s CBC of breaking international law, this claim of course being made without justification. These allegations are entirely baseless, and one can quickly deduce the true intentions of the BDS when they are forwarded.”

Political analyst Daniel Silke said industrial action in South Africa including strikes and worker unrest applied across a variety of industries and companies, so it wasn’t necessarily peculiar to a company with Israeli ownership or shareholding.

“However, the fact that there’s an Israeli connection certainly makes Clover a little more susceptible to industrial action,” Silke said.

“Trade unions here are vehemently anti-Israel and take a pro-BDS standpoint. The Israeli connection adds a degree of militancy and mobilisation to any kind of industrial action. Companies with an Israeli connection will find that if there is industrial action, it could take on more sinister or difficult global overtones rather than just being a domestic industrial or labour issue.”

Labour expert Sara Gon from the Institute of Race Relations said that in terms of the Labour Relations Act, a company was entitled to restructure if it was inefficient, costly, or overstaffed. “This is contrary to what’s being said in public-sector strikes, where the impression has been given that restructuring and retrenching is unlawful.”

She said management was entitled to embark on these actions if it believed it would benefit the larger company.

However, a company has to consult with employees and/or their representative trade unions and justify its actions and consider the views of employee representatives.

“Clover management has said trading conditions are difficult with poor economic growth, rising costs, and subdued consumer spending. For these reasons, a review of all aspects of Clover’s business was undertaken, which led to the difficult decision to restructure,” Gon said.

“GIWUSA has objected to Milco’s involvement in Clover since 2019 ‘in solidarity with oppressed people of Palestine’. The demands probably come more from the unions than the employees, because of the intensely anti-Israel stance taken by the federation they belong to, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.

“The DTIC [Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition] approved the takeover of Clover by Milco, and has no authority to interfere with the ownership or otherwise of the company.

“The anti-Israeli position is standard fare, but the two-month long strike is more puzzling in that not only will wages be lost over the period of the strike, it could aggravate trading conditions and result in more retrenchments.

“On the other hand, one can understand the desperate need to keep as many jobs in this punishing climate. The need to keep the company in existence is, however, paramount,” Gon said.

More rolling mass action is expected.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. yitzchak

    Jan 20, 2022 at 3:55 pm

    BDS, Africa4Palestine,MRN(Media Review Network,a moslem front organization)are loving this, and stoking it on.
    Factory closures are not mentioned namely Lichtenberg, Heilbron and Frankfort because of the dire straights of the failing infrastructure becaues of ANC controlled municipal mismanagement and breakdown of infrastructure.

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