Union leads nationwide strike at Cell C, marches to Pretoria

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Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Over 1 500 Cell C employees affiliated to the Information Communication Technology Union (ICTU) have embarked on a nationwide strike.

Cell C has since sought legal advice to stop the strike. However, the union says the strike will continue, and Cell C has said it will seek an interdict, if necessary.

They will be picketing at communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams’s office and will hand over a memorandum detailing retrenchments at the telco.

The ICTU last Friday issued a notice to strike to Cell C CEO Douglas Craigie Stevenson, just hours after its bid to stop retrenchments failed at the Labour Court.

The Johannesburg Labour Court threw out an interdict application by the ICTU, paving way for Cell C to continue with its retrenchment plans.

The union wanted the court to block the telco from implementing its restructuring plans, which will result in 1 600 redundancies.

Acting judge Sean Snyman dismissed the application, saying it lacked merit and the court was not satisfied that a case had been made.

In the same week, the ICTU received yet another blow, together with political party African Democratic Change, when they were interdicted by the High Court from interrupting business operations at the Sandton offices of Blue Label Telecoms, the largest shareholder in Cell C.

Responding to the labour court ruling, Cell C said throughout the process, it had remained committed to “meaningful engagements within the parameters of the law, in order to have closure and certainty for all affected parties”.

The ICTU, which is the majority union at Cell C, immediately notified the company of its intention to strike from today.

The letter reads: “The ICTU hereby notifies Cell C that its members will be embarking on industrial action as from the 12 October 2020 at 08:00 at all Cell C buildings and shops in protest against the retrenchments of more than 1 600 employees you are intending to undertake.

“This industrial action is protected under the Section 77 certificate which was issued by NEDLAC on the 21 September 2020 and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration which ended in a dispute.”

Documents seen by ITWeb show the union will be picketing at “all South African trading Cell C stores in all businesses and malls” on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, the ICTU will visit ANC head office, Luthuli House, to hand over another memorandum to Senzo Mchunu, minister of public service and administration.

On Thursday, it will have a sit-in at the office of opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. “Their silence is no longer golden to employees of Cell C and ICTU,” reads the document in reference to the Julius Malema-led political party.

The presidency is indicated as the last office the union will hand over its list of demands, on 16 October.

Cell C responds

Meanwhile, Cell C says it is aware that a number of its stores countrywide have not opened today due to illegal strike action by some of its store-level staff.

Customers are encouraged to go to Cell C’s online channels including the Web site and app for any purchases, it adds.

The telco says it respects the right to lawful and peaceful protest but cannot and will not condone illegal strikes where staff withhold labour.

It notes that last week, several courts and processes ruled against the ICTU:

  • The Labour Court dismissed the ICTU’s application to interdict Cell C from proceeding with retrenchments.
  • Two High Court interdicts were successfully obtained by Cell C against the ICTU to prevent store disruptions and unlawful protests in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
  • The CCMA dismissed the ICTU’s application for postponement of S189 consultation which marks the definitive end of the legal consultation period.
  • A High Court interdict successfully obtained by Blue Label Telecoms prevents unlawful protest action by the ICTU at its premises.

Throughout the Section 189 process, Cell C has adhered to the labour laws, respected employee rights and followed all due processes, it points out.

“Unfortunately, the union has done its members a disservice by failing to participate in the CCMA-facilitated consultation process, which has now concluded, opting instead to be disruptive rather than engage meaningfully,” it states.

“The last CCMA-facilitated consultation meeting was held on 30 September 2020, marking the end of the prescribed 60 days consultation period. The company had already conceded to an extension of 30 days.

“Having followed all due processes, Cell C is well within its rights to proceed with the implementation of its restructuring process.”

Cell C says it remains committed to be fully compliant with the laws applicable to the restructuring process.

Back to the beginning

The battle began when Cell C bosses announced thousands of redundancies, equalling up to 40% of the entire workforce, in June.

The union has been resisting the move to retrench people, while the company is pressing ahead with its plans.

Cell C put in place a turnaround strategy in early 2019 and it says one of the pillars of the strategy is a focus on operational efficiencies.

The telco says over time, the operating model has resulted in several inefficiencies and there is a need to right-size the business and reduce the headcount to ensure the company is competitive and sustainable.

Furthermore, the debt-burdened Cell C announced plans to close down 130 stores across the country as financial pressure continues to ravage the company.

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