Members of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) at the Unilever Foods Solutions and tea factories in Pietermaritzburg have been on strike since January 17 in disputes over wages and the company’s unilateral job reclassification scheme, which will move current and future workers into a newly-created ‘General Operator’ category with inferior pay and benefits.
Negotiations at both Food Solutions and the tea factory deadlocked over wages, with FAWU demanding 10% and 9% increases, respectively, and the company offering no more than 6%.
At Unilever Food Solutions, according to FAWU, the company “downgraded the Canister Department and Label Operator positions. There have been two grades in both these sites, AO grade (Autonomous Operator) and UO grade (Universal Operator). Unilever has recently introduced a third layer of grade, the lowest grade called GO (General Operator). The introduction of this grade was discussed and the union objected since the GO’s were used to replace some of the AO grade employees. This then works the same as the Youth Wage Subsidy that we objected to as the federation. A common understanding could not be reached where finally the company forcefully implemented the new grading at R3500 which is on a lower pay scale than the others.
“Workers that were working as Label Operators and those in the Canister department were graded as AOs according to skill and job performed on those areas. The company has since gradually placed GO’s in the Canister department and in the place of the Label Operators. People that were working in these positions were reshuffled to other departments. Slowly these young GO’s will replace all the older members that are paid at better grades. At the end of the day they will be able to run the company with the most people at the very lowest paid grade. We should also bear in mind that this is the lowest paid division in all Unilever companies.”
Pietermaritzburg is not the first site where Unilever has recently attempted to unilaterally reclassify/downgrade classifications. FAWU is demanding that the company drop the scheme.
FAWU members at Pietermaritzburg showing support for the strike by FNV Bondgenoten workers outsourced to Sodexo in the Netherlands last year