For over five years, employees at CONCO Eswatini have been subjected to a cycle of three-month contracts, an anonymous source revealed to Swazi Bridge this week.

This has left many workers in a state of perpetual insecurity, unable to plan for the future or secure long-term stability. The situation has taken a turn for the worse as the company now plans to release some employees without providing proper benefits. Coca-Cola (CONCO) eSwatini is a food manufacturing group and produces soft drink concentrate and supplies it to sixty bottling companies across 20 countries in Africa.

It imports some of its raw materials like dairy products into the country and sources most sugar materials locally. Conco is the country's biggest tax contributor.  A source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the working conditions at CONCO as dire.

"We've been working on three-month contracts for years. There's no job security, no benefits, and now they want to send us home without anything to show for our hard work," the source told Swazi Bridge. "It's like we're disposable. The stress and uncertainty are unbearable."

*Mbongeleni Dlamini, an employee of CONCO, told Swazi Bridge that at least 31 employees stand to lose their jobs as the company intends to lay off some of the contract employees "before they hit the 10 years on contract." Some of the employees have been with the company for over five years. 

Dlamini told Swazi Bridge that he has been an employee of CONCO since 2017 but put on perpetual  three months contracts that would elapse and be expected to stay at home for a month before being recalled again under a new three months contract arrangement.

He said in-between this period, countless people have been hired when full time positions open but are not taken from those who are already on short term contracts instead people who get employed are relatives of the head honchos if not their acquaintances. Often times those who get employed are trained by the old employees.

Muzi Mahlobo, CONCO Managing Director

Globally, labor practices have been under scrutiny, with international labor organizations advocating for fair treatment, job security, and adequate compensation for workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) emphasizes the importance of decent work conditions and the need for secure employment contracts.

However, in many developing countries, including Eswatini, such standards are often overlooked. Locally, the labor laws in eSwatini provide for basic worker rights, including the right to fair wages and conditions of employment.

However, enforcement of these laws remains a challenge. Many companies exploit legal loopholes, leaving workers vulnerable and without recourse. CONCO's approach to employment has been criticized as a reflection of broader systemic issues within the labor market in eSwatini.

The use of short-term contracts is a common practice aimed at reducing labor costs and avoiding the obligations associated with permanent employment. However, this practice has severe implications for the workforce, affecting their mental health, financial stability, and overall quality of life.

As the news of impending layoffs spreads, the affected employees are left to grapple with the uncertainty of their future. The lack of proper benefits upon termination exacerbates their plight, as many will find themselves without a safety net in an already challenging economic environment.

Previous attempts to form the Beverages Manufacturing and Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU) failed before it could start as unionists who spearheaded the union were frustrated out of the employment resulting in the union dying a natural death and ultimately deregistered after a ruling from the Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration Commission (CMAC).

One of the contract of Conco workers

Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland (ATUSWA) Secretary General Wander Mkhonza said he had tried to speak to some of the leaders of BEMUSA to advise them how to be properly organised but they couldn't find each other as they insisted on being a CONCO union only something that he said was always going to tilt the scales against the workers. 

"The problem is when you are a worker and are not organised (into a union) you will fight individual battles alone. Either you take what employer says or you out of the company, its as easy like that. They will be pushed until they are tired and pushed out of the company.

The solution is to be organised so that you are not treated like an employee when dealing with union issues. This ensures that the union protects you when dealing with the employer because you wont be the one expected to speak to your employer directly," Mkhonza said.

"BEMUSA's problem was that it was representing CONCO only. You cant confront the employer when you are their employee. When you meet management you meet him as an employee and at that very point the balance of power is against you. The scales are not balanced. BEMUSA ultimately looked like a workers council that was a small irritation to the employer. When things heat up, we protect our union members by ensuring that even when we deal with issues at their work place we don't make them speak. The heat is therefore taken away from the employees.  From day one the employer never took the issues or even the union seriously. People at CONCO are suspended and stopped from work and end up resigning and we couldn't help the as such because the union was not organising across the board. Once they are outside only then do they want help from us. We tell them we cant to help now sadly," Mkhonza said.

Atuswa Secretary General Wander Mkhonza

Mkhonza said they have however taken a decision to try and organise these workers again and had already spoke to various COCA COLA workers especially in America to make one last effort to organise these workers. 

CONCO Managing Director Muzi Mahlobo, speaking through his Assistant Human Resources Manager Senzeni Kunene, promised to respond to the allegations but eventually did not do so. Mahlobo indicated that they will respond comprehensively to the issues but never did even when offered extended time to give their comments. 

NB: *Not real name to protect identity of worker