South Africa

KZN FIRE

Hundreds face uncertain future after blaze guts mushroom company factory

Hundreds face uncertain future after blaze guts mushroom company factory
The clean-up operation continues after the blaze at the Denny Mushrooms factory in Shongweni. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

After a fire devastated a large part of the Denny Mushrooms plant in Shongweni, west of Durban, on 9 September, workers and other stakeholders knew there would be consequences — and potential job losses.

The impact of a fire that tore through the Denny Mushrooms plant west of Durban is being harshly felt by hundreds of workers, their families and dependants.

 

They have had to go without salaries since the blaze led to the closure of the plant and a state of force majeure, with uncertainty now about the future of the operation — and their jobs.

Investigations are still under way as to the cause of the blaze, but this has not stopped speculation that it could have been arson — caused by disgruntled workers who were unhappy with the company’s offer of a 7% annual pay increase.

It has been reported that the police at Marianhill have opened a case of malicious damage to property.

denny factory blaze

The fire-damaged Denny Mushrooms factory in Shongweni, west of Durban. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

The fire engulfed a storeroom, growing room and the packaging and dispatch department. It occurred amid bitter wage negotiations between the company and unions. Initially, unions demanded a 10% wage increase and the company offered 5%. The unions then revised their demand to 8% and the company made a final offer of 7%.

The devastating fire was the second to affect the facility in just over two weeks. The first blaze happened in late August, but was quickly extinguished by firefighters. The most recent fire caused millions of rands in damages and resulted in the plant closing down, putting out of service more than 319 permanent workers and many more casuals.

Denny Mushrooms is SA’s largest producer of fresh mushrooms, and also produces sauces, plant-based meal solutions and soups. It is wholly owned by the JSE-listed company Libstar Holdings.

denny factory clean-up

The clean-up operation continues after the blaze at the Denny Mushrooms factory in Shongweni. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Its mushrooms are grown at three hi-tech production facilities in Krugersdorp (Gauteng), Shongweni (KwaZulu-Natal) and Phesantekraal (Western Cape). 

The Shongweni plant has been in operation for more than 70 years, according to the company website, and has employed generations of workers.

Since the blaze, retail stores in Durban, KZN and surrounding provinces have run out of Denny Mushrooms products, but the company said it would use its Gauteng plant to resupply its customers in KZN and other provinces.

During the July 2021 riots, the company’s KZN and Gauteng operations were affected, resulting in a forced closure that lasted for more than two weeks.

No work, no pay

denny factory work

A worker at the Denny Mushroom factory west of Durban who did not want to be identified, says they have been suffering since blaze left them without work or pay. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Workers who spoke to Daily Maverick said they faced an uncertain future. Their employers had not indicated whether the plant would be repaired and reopened, or closed permanently.

Workers said the past few weeks had been very difficult as they have had no salaries.

Many said they had left the plant after their Friday shift when the fire broke out. They said the company had been installing CCTV cameras during the week in which the fire broke out and it was possible that the contractor installing the cameras had caused an electrical fault that sparked the fire.

“We are battling because we have had no income since the blaze,” said Ntuthuko Msomi*, who has been a general worker at Denny  Mushrooms for the past six years. He supports a family of seven, including his two young children.

“I recently bought a plot of land here in Shongweni and I was planning to slowly build a home for my children as soon as I get a bonus in December. Now all those plans have collapsed.

denny factory blaze jobs

People from Shongweni west of Durban are in distress after the Denny Mushrooms factory fire cost many people their jobs. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“Instead, I worry if I will ever have employment. Our bosses have never said anything about whether they will close down or continue. Our lives are in limbo,” he said.

These sentiments were echoed by other workers to whom Daily Maverick spoke. They said the only thing that the company had offered them was a letter to workers’ creditors telling them that because of the fire, the workers would not be paid until further notice.

A 27-year-old casual worker said he had received a call from the company to report for duty on Saturday when he heard about the blaze.

“My family had worked in the Denny Mushrooms [factory]. My granny, before she retired, had worked here. My sister and cousins had all worked in the Denny Mushrooms factory before the blaze. Now we are all not working.”

His grandmother (68), who asked not to be named because of fear of retribution, said the plant had helped to raise her children and grandchildren.

“If the fire was caused by people, those people will never see heaven. The plant was a lifesaver for many families, especially here in Shongweni. I don’t know what will become of us if it closes down,” she said.

Even former workers said the blaze had saddened them. Musa Zulu, an academic and disability activist,  joined Denny Mushrooms in 1994 as a junior human resources manager. A few months later, he suffered a devastating accident which left him paralysed from the waist down. Many of the Denny Mushrooms workers visited him when he was recovering in hospital.

A few days after the blaze, Zulu drove to the plant to witness the tragedy for himself and on his Facebook account he posted the following:

“Today, 27 years later, I visited Denny Mushrooms to see with my own eyes how scorching flames had gutted down this place of my youthful memories. The Security guy at the gate still remembered me by name. We spoke about our times — quite many are now retired, others are dead and a few were fired along the way. I was consoled when he told me that no one was injured in this destruction.

“If this was arson, as firefighters attest, then this fire has also left my soul burnt to ashes!” Zulu lamented.

‘No evidence of arson by workers’

The unions say although the fire broke out during a wage negotiations deadlock, there is no conclusive evidence that workers were to blame.

The Transport, Action, Retail and General Workers Union (Thorn) is the majority union at the plant. Its general secretary, Xolani Sisilane, said his union had been preparing for pickets and a possible strike at the time of the blaze.

“According to the information at our disposal, the fire started after the workers had finished their shifts and headed home. If the company had CCTV cameras, those cameras should be able to identify those who burnt it down.

“A few days after the blaze we met the company and were taken on a tour so that we could see what was damaged. Now we are waiting for the company to write and communicate with us what will happen next. But we are hopeful that the plant will be renovated and open again for business. Workers were not responsible for the fire and it is unfortunate that they have to endure this suffering,” he said.

denny factory blaze

The clean-up operation continues after the blaze at the Denny Mushrooms factory in Shongweni. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Nicola Strauss, the spokesperson for Denny Mushrooms, said it was too early to determine what would happen to the gutted plant.

“We can confirm there was a fire at our Denny Mushroom Shongweni farm in KwaZulu-Natal on Friday 9 September 2022, which we believe started at approximately 16:45. We are currently working with the authorities to investigate the cause of the fire as well as assess the damage. The investigation has only been concluded this week and we await the report. 

“We are unable to comment further at this stage as to the cause, extent or estimated cost of the damage; however we don’t expect this to have a material impact on the financial results of the group for the year ended December 2022. The safety of our people remains a key priority and we are thankful that none of our 319 employees were injured. We remain focused on servicing the needs of our customers from our plants in Gauteng and the Western Cape,” she said.

The company declined to answer further questions about payment for workers during the forced shutdown.

Some workers confirmed that they had been called to the plant on Tuesday and given Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) compensation forms to fill out and take to the Department of Labour.

Thorn’s Sisilane said the situation had been dire for workers during the past few weeks. 

“We have been trying to engage the company about temporary payoffs for workers while they are not working so that they can buy food and/or cover some of their living costs,” he said. DM

*Not his real name.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • R S says:

    It would not be outside of normal South African behaviour for this to have been a case of fire caused by disgruntled workers. When Eskom employees sabotage entire power stations to get what they want, this sort of behaviour will be replicated elsewhere.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    So, if arson has happened, we have another case of a small group of terrorists damaging the lives of many! When will the majority react to protect themselves against such action?

  • Nos Feratu says:

    Tragic for those affected by the fire but no doubt they will find and deal with the culprits

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    I’ve heard from a source within the plant, it seems very likely that it was arson. Bugger the unions. They are the start of these problems. The militant staff must go and ask the militant unions for money.

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