Interview with Vida Claasen: retail worker
Vida Claasen | Amandla Magazine | September 2020
I am Vida Claassen and I have been working for a major supermarket chain for 27 years. In 1996 I joined the union and became a shop steward, as the previous two years had shown me that the company treated the unionised workers very differently to non-unionised workers. Since then I have been very active in union structures that represent retail workers, and particularly workers employed in supermarkets.
Working all the time
Personally, due to being so busy with my political work, and I am also involved with rugby, I never had time to have my own social life, so I am still single at the age of 50. I don’t have any children so it is easier for me to get around when it comes to dealing with all the pressures of work.
For our members working in the retail sector it is quite difficult, especially for the single mothers. In retail, the majority of workers are female, but I can count on my hands how many long-serving women work at managerial level. And more than 60% are variable employees (casuals).
Even before Covid it was difficult for mothers across the board because their shifts start at 10am. That means that in the morning there is only time to make sure their children have breakfast and then they only see the children again at 10PM (of which they will be asleep already). In the hotels, working hours are even worse.
These working hours mean that the mother is never at home. She doesn’t know what is happening in her child’s life, and also she doesn’t have control over the child if things like drugs become a problem. From the company’s side there is no sympathy. They just call in people to speak with us about how to provide support if someone has a drug problem.
When I listen to how the women workers talk, their stress is double compared to the men. The women are worried about the children at home, even when the husband is home. Is the husband looking after the children? What am I making for dinner? Has he started making supper? What if I get infected and have to go to hospital? The women are on edge all the time. They don’t want to break the code of social distancing.
Men, some of them are taking the virus seriously. It’s not that the other men don’t; it’s just that they are more relaxed, which tells me that the responsibility for managing the consequences of the virus lies with the female.
Working during the pandemic has been very stressful and traumatic. We are being exposed to the virus and getting sick because we are not adequately protected. For the first few weeks of lockdown we didn’t have any screens, we only had masks. Some managers would just ignore the regulations.
In my store, the first Covid-19 case only appeared in June. As soon as one came out, all of a sudden there were so many more – 14 cases in just 6 days. It was so frightening. Managers can afford to sit in their offices behind closed doors, but we have to go through all the trauma in the store. Those mammies working in the store have to deal with rude customers. They had to be scared for themselves; when they go home they have to be scared about infecting their family. The risk of infecting your own family – that is the most scary part. But they have to earn an income because the husband may not have a job, since some workplaces laid off people.
And because of lockdown everyone is frustrated at home. The husband is frustrated at home as his role has changed.
The first person that was infected with Covid-19 in my store is still suffering post-traumatic stress. She only came back after a month and a half and had an anxiety attack the moment she came into the store. When someone approaches her from behind she jumps. It got to the point where she was just collapsed from time to time. She got some counselling from the hospital but from the company’s side there is no support. How do you just leave workers hanging like that? The risks that the company takes is also part of the cause of what we women go through during this pandemic.
The hidden costs of accessing health care
The problem is also the health system. Facilities are overloaded. You can’t just go now and expect to be helped. I know of one woman who had a health problem and went to hospital. She was seven months pregnant. Under normal conditions she would have been assisted quicker, but with the pandemic it’s impossible and she and her baby both died.
For those women who have to quarantine at home, things can be difficult. One lady had to go to a facility to isolate because they don’t have the space for her to be alone in a room at home. She has a baby only 9 months old. The child was breastfeeding but had to go on the bottle. Now the husband is alone with the baby struggling, as it’s obvious the child wanted her mom.
When self-isolating you don’t get paid your normal wage – they will take from your sick leave, TERS and UIF. I had to quarantine for about 20 days. When I was due to go back to work it was extended to another close contact of mine. Who paid for my Covid test? – me, myself and I! At least I had medical aid, but how difficult for those who don’t?
People also don’t want to get tested because they lose sick days. Then if your child gets sick, you can’t even take sick days because your allocation will be exhausted. Why would the companies put their employees out like that? This is really bad of the companies because it’s not that they won’t be able to get assistance from the government – the options are there.
Lack of safety regulations leaves workers vulnerable
Something that the government omitted to do during the first lockdown, and now again with the change to Level 2, is to stipulate exactly how many people are allowed into supermarkets. They can do this for hotels, so why not supermarkets? To me that is worrisome because it means there can be more than 50 shoppers in a store at a time – alongside the 100 workers who work in the store.
This is a daily struggle for us. Sometimes we call the health inspectors to come and see if it is safe for us to work with so many shoppers in the store. They have actually told the managers to limit the number of customers who can shop at one time, so that has been a help. Government must regulate the retailers. We feel like the company is being reckless.
As for the outsourced workers, the company doesn’t care a bit about them. Their own companies are responsible for them. These people are so afraid to join a union – afraid that they may just be fired because of that. When permanent workers get sick, outsourced workers are brought in. Sometimes entire departments have to close down. In one of the shops all of the workers in the butchery had to stay away from work because the majority tested positive for Covid and the rest had to self-isolate. No one was left. So the union told the company that if they bring in outsourced workers they should have the same screening and the same safety equipment as our staff.
Who carries the cost of curfews?
During the curfews we negotiated that people should not work past 6pm. But then, with the lockdown regulations, transport was a problem. The company would not pay the taxi service for a full load, and the taxis did not want to continue working with a 50% load because they also have households to feed. We workers then had to arrange our own transport.
Curfews also meant shorter trading hours, which meant less working hours for our variable time employees. So as the union we negotiated that full time staff should work an hour longer every day so that variable time employees (casuals) can still work a full day Saturday and Sunday with the reduced trading times. It’s sad, because normally they would work between 27-40 hours a week with transport provided and now it is down to 26 hours a week – and they still pay for their own transport. This makes employees not to disclose when feeling under the weather, afraid of losing more income. Again these are majority female employees and single parents, of which some are sole breadwinners in their respective households.
Before Covid, this was already tabled but will now even be worse. Companies claim they are struggling yet CEOs get compensated enormous amounts. The working class has to be satisfied with always getting the short end of the stick.