Former colleagues took courses to become small-scale farmers, while others trained as truck drivers. Picture: JOHNNY ONVERWACHT
Former colleagues took courses to become small-scale farmers, while others trained as truck drivers. Picture: JOHNNY ONVERWACHT

RCL Foods was forced to retrench workers at its Hammarsdale poultry plant early in 2017 as cheap chicken imports from countries such as the US, Brazil and parts of the EU put the local industry under pressure.

Nonjabulo Shabalala, 33, was one of the 1,350 workers who were laid off. Having worked at the factory for more than eight years, the news of her  retrenchment came as a huge shock.

“I was the only breadwinner at home and my impending layoff was not going to affect me alone, but eight other family members,” she recalled.

The Food & Allied Workers Union (Fawu) intervened. It wanted to ensure that the younger workers were reskilled and refocused to take up other opportunities in the economy. Their training was overseen by the Do More Foundation, a non-profit organisation that receives funding from local companies.

“I took this opportunity and did a two-year diploma in fashion design at the Pietermaritzburg School of Fashion,” Shabalala said. Some of her former colleagues took courses to become small-scale farmers, while others trained as truck drivers.

Business is booming

Using the skills she learnt at the fashion school, Shabalala started a small fashion design outfit on Pietermaritzburg’s Timber Street. And business is booming.

“I am now employing two other people and, from time to time, I request other assistants to help with the workload,” she said. “We design clothes for individuals, for traditional ceremonies and weddings. I also design wedding gowns if I get orders.”

Like Shabalala, Loraine Ngubane, 44, a resident of Mpumalanga township near Hammarsdale, was retrenched in 2017. She had worked for RCL Foods for 10 years. 

Ngubane took the opportunity to learn small-scale farming and although her business has yet to take off due to a lack of land, she is hopeful for the future.

“We are trying to secure land from the local authorities and we plan to start chicken farming and vegetable gardens,” she said. “Local supermarkets have pledged to buy from us.”

Another retrenched worker, who spoke to Business Day on condition of anonymity, took a professional driving course. He now works as a truck driver, travelling between Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria, and to neighbouring countries.

“I am not full time at work, but at least I am earning something and I am able to feed my family,” he said.

Iris Naidoo, a programme specialist at the Do More Foundation, said while the organisation does not keep track of all those who received training, it is happy to see that some have picked themselves up and improved their lives.

Others are still in limbo. According to Fawu’s August Mbhele, “many of them [the retrenched workers] are still at home and don’t have income yet”.