There has been much said online over the past 48 hours following a revelation that Woolworths had advertised positions where only “African blacks” or “Africans, Coloureds and Indians” would be considered.
In fact, Solidarity have launched a social media campaign “Woolworse: Making a differentiation” which calls for people to send protest messages to Woolworths CEO Ian Moir. They have also launched an online petition, and established an SMS line where people can voice their protest for just R2 an sms.
Since the story has broken calls to boycott your Woolworths stores have been circulating, citing that 79% of your customer base is white (a random unsubstantiated figure but lets go with it) and all whites should stay away for 10 days to punish you for discrimination, while social media platforms have been flooded with people expressing their outrage.
In true poor PR form, you, Woolworths, responded by saying that you had a role to play in transformation and for this reason some of your positions had been designated as employment equity posts; that these posts were for Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, women and people with disabilities; that according to the Employment Equity Act of 1998, Woolworths was expected, like all SA companies with more than 50 employees, to plan your workforce by race, gender and disability; and that your workforce is diverse and includes people of all races gender and disability.
In fact Woolworths, your national employee relations manager Mark van Buuren said you have no intention to accede to Solidarity’s demand. He said employers had a responsibility to transform workplaces and Woolworths believed its business should meet employment equity requirements.
The thing is, though, the Employment Equity Act of 1998 clearly states that the purpose of the legislation is to achieve equity in the workplace by (a) promoting equal opportunity and fair treatment in employment through the elimination of unfair discrimination; and (b) implementing affirmative action measures to redress the disadvantages in employment experienced by designated groups, in order to ensure their equitable representation in all occupational categories and levels in the workforce.
One could argue then that, by making certain posts available for designated groups – a term which means black people (itself a generic term which means Africans, Coloureds, Indians and after a long legal battle, Chinese), women and people with disabilities – only, you would be in line with the Act as you were trying to ensure equitable representation.
However, the Act also clearly stipulates, under section 15, that “nothing in this section requires a designated employer to take any decision concerning an employment policy or practice that would establish an absolute barrier to the prospective or continued employment or advancement of people who are not from designated groups.”
Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that people who are not from designated groups are effectively white males. Nor does it take a genius to figure out that preventing a person from applying for a post would construe an absolute barrier.
You could even argue that by doing so you were in fact exercising unfair discrimination, a practice frowned upon by the Act.
You could now turn around and say “But everyone else is doing it…
In fact just last month South African Airways were caught out for doing the exact same thing in that they automatically rejected any applications received from white people for the cadet pilot programme, citing the fact that 85% of their current pilots were white and they needed to change this.
A valid point, except it led to a Dutch member of the European Parliament calling on the president of the European Council to consider suspending SAA landing rights in Europe should the airline continue discriminating against white pilots. They also received huge flack from Solidarity (surprise surprise) and the Democratic Alliance.
Shortly thereafter, SAA amended their policy and said they were accepting white applicants and were extending the application deadline to allow them to apply.
So what was the blunder?
You see the biggest problem is that neither you nor SAA allowed white people to apply.
Any smart Human Resources person (perhaps you should look at hiring a few) will tell you that what you do is add the little caveat at the bottom of your employment advert, which states that the post will be filled in accordance with the company’s Employment Equity guidelines and policies, and then simply ignore any applications from white people during the evaluation process.
This is a totally legit appointment process in South Africa.
You don’t go and prod them with a stick and remind them that they are now the minority and that not every door will be opened for them. That’s asking for trouble.
You see, Woolworths, what you did wrong was you were too honest. Everyone knows positions in post apartheid South Africa are assigned based on racial profiling, you just admitted it.
So how do you fix it?
It’s really quite simple. Retract the adverts, like SAA did, and allow the whites to apply.
This gives you great PR mileage with the whites, who will commend you for changing your racist ways and will once again flock to your stores to buy your overpriced food, clothing and household items.
Hell, they may even buy a Christian magazine or two, if you still have any.
Then simply fill the posts with employees that meet your racially determined – I mean employee equity – profiles.