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Organisations representing vulnerable workers intervene in Heineken-Distell merger

- Ariella Scher

CALS represents two workers groups in the merger between the holding companies of Distell and Heineken before the Competition Tribunal from 18 - 23 January 2023

The Casual Workers Advice Office and the Women on Farms Project, represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, have intervened in the Competition Tribunal hearing regarding the large merger application between Distell Group Holdings and Namibian Breweries Investment Holdings. The intervenors seek to bring the perspective of vulnerable workers – such as those employed through labour brokers – to the Competition Tribunal, and urge the Tribunal to take those workers’ rights into account when adjudicating the merger application.

Distell Group Holdings (Distell) and Namibian Breweries Investment Holdings (Heineken), two large companies operating largely in the alcohol production and distribution sector, applied to the competition authorities in 2021 to have their intended large merger approved. The Competition Commission recommended that the merger be approved with certain conditions. 

Being a large merger, the decision on the merger application rests with the Competition Tribunal. The Competition Tribunal is scheduled to hear the merger application between 18 and 23 January 2023.

In reaching its recommendation, the Competition Commission consulted with formal labour unions, but failed to recognise the extent and scope of workers employed through labour brokers who are working at both Distell and Heineken’s workplaces, and who will be directly affected by any merger between the companies. This failure means that the employment-related conditions proposed by the Competition Commission which accompany its recommendation that the merger be approved, are inadequate.

The Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) and the Women on Farms Project (WFP) are community organisations which provide support to distinct groups of vulnerable workers (including casual, contract and other precarious workers, and farm dwelling worker communities) who are employed across Heineken and Distell’s workplaces, encompassing breweries, warehouses and farms, assisting them to achieve their rights.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) represents WFP and CWAO in an intervention in the merger proceedings in order to draw to the Competition Tribunal’s attention the experiences of such vulnerable workers at these workplaces and the extent of their poor treatment by the two companies, which has exacerbated their extreme vulnerability. That experience includes the widespread and intentional use of labour broker workers to avoid providing job security, benefits and favourable working conditions to such workers.

The aim of the intervention is thus to ensure that such workers’ rights and interests are taken into account when the merger application is adjudicated. We accordingly ask that the Competition Tribunal investigate the conduct of both Heineken and Distell in relation to vulnerable workers, and ensure that such workers’ rights are adequately protected, before any merger may be allowed to proceed.

Given South Africa’s history of extreme exploitation of black labour, corporations which prefer precarious forms of labour over permanent employment serve to perpetuate the exploitation and the current socio-economic and unemployment crisis facing our society.

“The Competition Tribunal has an obligation to assess the effects of the proposed merger on employment, which must include all workers at the workplaces of the merger applicants, not just those in formal, permanent employment,” says Ariella Scher, head of Business and Human Rights at CALS. “We hope our intervention will assist the Competition Tribunal to account for all workers, and go some way in recognising vulnerable workers and affording them protection.”

Read our heads of argument in the matter here

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