Vital Health Foods workers down tools

Workers protested outside the Vital Health Foods factory in Kuils River last week. They are striking for higher wages.

A Kuils River-based vitamin manufacturer saw sales for some of its products soar earlier this year, but employees say they’ve been left out in the cold.

The workers at the Vital Health Foods plant in Lavender Lane downed tools on Monday May 3 as they embarked on a strike for a 15% pay hike.

However, company chief executive Justin Williamson said that in a battered economy with a consumer price index of 3%, their 6.5% counter offer was realistic.

“Bear in mind government employees are being offered zero,” he said in an email to the Northern News.

A worker’s representative, who didn’t want his name published as he feared reprisals from the company, said: “When we calculated their offer, it was nothing. It would be a losing situation for the workers.”

The workers fall under the Bellville-based United Association of South Africa.

The man said the workers had brought their demand down to 7% across the board and had then later asked for an R800 increase for all employees, but the company had stood firm. The workers had then returned to their initial demand of 15% before revising it to 13%.

Mr Williamson said the company had offered employees a 6.5% increase and a 13th cheque for two years.

The Business Day on February 8 reported Mr Williamson as saying Vital’s vitamin C sales sky-rocketed by 450% and zinc by 300% in January, amid the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The publication reported that vitamin C and zinc sales increased to about two million tablets a month and production to 60 million units.

On Friday May 7, Mr Williamson told this publication the company was not boasting in its interview with the Business Day but merely highlighting that “volumes [of zinc and vitamin C] had increased” in January. Now sales were down and, as a result, the two products are down by over 50% in the past two months, he said.

The vitamins are commonly prescribed by doctors as immune boosters which have come in handy in Covid-19 home-made remedies.

The workers told the Northern News that they had watched prices of the products go up sharply while their working conditions had worsened.

“We were never compensated for that. The workload here is 12 hours. They made a lot of money. We get paid R5 900, others R13 000. Now they don’t want to engage our demands,” said the representative.

Another worker said: “At the peak of Covid if you fell ill you were forced to take from your own sick leave.”

They were not included in a risk fund, they said.

In a December 2020 email to workers, seen by the Northern News, Mr Williams says that Vital “survived the year pretty much unscathed” and “benefited from the troubles others have suffered”. He also extended a R500 token of appreciation “for everything you have done for Vital this year”.

Though Mr Williamson said workers will not be punished for striking, he said the company was investigating the possible sabotage of “certain equipment”. The strike had not cost the company a cent in sales, he said.

Asked to comment about allegedly poor working conditions at the firm, Mr Williamson said: “First time this has ever been raised.”