South Africa: “My name is Ethelina and I am on strike for my human rights”

Submitted by Matthew on 24 June, 2010 - 11:00

A striker at Dis-Chem Pharmacies tells of her life. Dis-Chem is a major company in South Africa, and the workers have been on strike since 27 May 2010. From the South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union.

My name is Ethelina and I am fifty-eight years old. I work as a cleaner. I`ve been working for Dis-Chem since January 1996 and I still only earn R3600 per month. I live in a shack in Orange Farm [a very poor Johannesburg township].

Every morning I get out of bed at 3.30 am and leave the house before 4am, when my family is still asleep, to make sure I get to work on time at 7am. When I get home in the evening it is already dark, after 7pm, sometimes even after 8 pm.

Then I must still cook, iron and wash clothes, feed and wash the little-ones before I can go to bed at after 10 pm.

Many times when the train is full I have to stand all the way. Sometimes I am so tired, I don`t even have energy to cook, and I just give the children bread and tea and put them to bed.

My train fare is R150 per month and I spend a further R15 per day on taxi-fares [R1 is about 1p].

Every second week I work over weekends and get one day-off during the week.

I am the sole bread-winner in the family and have four dependents to take care of, two of my own children — young men who are still unemployed and looking for work — and two grandchildren.

In Orange Farm I stay in a one-bedroom shack. I want to extend it and later build a proper brick house for my family, but with my income and given my age it will not happen.

In 2003 I had an accident and my leg was broken; my leg was in a cast and I was in a wheelchair, but my bosses insisted I must come to work. I had to sit in a wheelchair and mop the floors, or I was going to lose my job. This was degrading and humiliating and I felt very angry and insulted by this.

My daughter Mavis also worked at Dis-Chem for seven years until she got too sick and passed away. Now I`m taking care of one of her children as well. While Mavis was sick, and with no-one to take care of her I asked my bosses to give me a few days off to make arrangements to send her to my sister in Cape Town who is at home and will be able to take care of her, but the bosses did not believe me.

They insisted I must first bring my sick daughter to work so that they can see if she really is sick. Even when she came back from Cape Town later they told me to bring her to work to see if she is still sick, they did not believe me.

Shortly after that my daughter passed away. When I went to the company about funeral benefits, they told me my daughter was out of work for too long and I received no funeral benefits, despite the fact that they deduct funeral benefits.

Provident Fund only gave me R5000 and told me the rest of the money must go towards paying tax. I had to depend on donations from family and friends and still had to borrow money from the loan sharks to arrange the funeral and bury my daughter. Today I`m still paying that loans, that`s why I don`t think I`ll ever extend my shack or build a house for me and my family

All this make me very angry. I’m not the only one who suffers like this. There are many of my fellow-workers who suffer like this at Dis-Chem. This company does not care about us workers, that is why I have joined SACCAWU and that is why we are determined to strike until Dis-Chem meet with our union.

Workers’ demands: meaningful engagement with our union aimed at meeting the following fair and reasonable demands:

• A minimum wage of R 3,500 per month;

• An across the board increase of 15%;

• All casual employees should be converted to permanent full-time employees after three months of employment;

• Parental rights; a subsidized Medical Aid Scheme; a housing subsidy and meaningful long service awards.

• An immediate end to all forms of harassment and intimidation of workers who are currently on strike and are exercising their right to picket;

• That the Company should practice cordial industrial relations.

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