Hartbeespoort, Wednesday 10 October 2018 – The owner of the Spar and Food Lovers Market at Hartbeespoort’s Sediba Plaza, Chris Giannakopoulos, allegedly physically assaulted and verbally abused a female employee on Friday during one of his reportedly erratic tirades, this time attributed to his displeasure at the manner in which his employees were cleaning his newly opened Food Lovers Market store.
The assault on the employee comes exactly one week after an anti-racism march organised by the Hartbeespoort Community Development Initiative (HCDI) sought to bring to the fore the rampant and unabated occurrence of discriminatory and racially motivated injustices being perpetuated on workers around the Hartbeespoort area and members of the public in general by some community members who are believed to harbour superiority tendencies based on class and race. The march further called on various Government departments including the Presidency and the Department of Labour to urgently investigate the unfair labour practices reportedly taking place relentlessly in Hartbeespoort and surrounding areas.
According to the employee who works as an office lady in the cash office, Giannakopoulos arrived at the store at about 07h00 in one of his reportedly fear triggering moods and bolted into a loud and verbally abusive outburst at staff members who were on duty.
“Chris entered the store and began shouting and swearing at everybody complaining about how dirty the store was. This was despite the fact that the cashiers, who double up as cleaners, were still busy cleaning the store before it opened at 08h00. He was verbally abusive to everyone, calling staff members all sorts of names and just generally being rude and disrespectful. He also dished out ‘absents’ to everyone. An ‘absent’ is basically a form of punishment where staff members report to work but do not get paid for that day. When he came into the cash office with two store managers he asked me why I was not cleaning with others. My job is to prepare the float for the cashiers before the shop opens and that is what I was doing when he entered. I did not respond to his first question. He then looked at the float that I was counting and asked me what I was doing. I responded that I was preparing the float for the cashiers as per instruction from one of the store managers.
“It was at this point that in a fit of rage and with no warning or provocation, Chris unexpectedly hit me very hard on the left side of my head using his fist. I had not done or said anything to warrant his attack on me. He swore at me and called me a b***h, a motherf****r, an idiot and various other names. I started crying because the physical pain was unbearable plus I could not believe that my boss had just assaulted me in that manner. I was terrified and in shock. Chris then stormed out of the cash office followed by the male store manager and I remained behind with the female store manager who tried to comfort me. The left side of my head was throbbing and I could not hear anything for a while with my left ear,” she said.
She then packed her belongings and proceeded to her home to collect cash for transport to the police station. On her way to the police station one of her co-workers and a concerned resident who had heard of the assault picked her up and drove her to the police station where a case was opened against Giannakopoulos. The police officers who assisted her then advised her to go and seek immediate medical attention.
The attack on the employee has subsequently opened a can of worms revealing the shocking happenings in Giannakopoulos’s stores in Hartbeespoort. Former employees report that these happenings are widespread in his empire of 16 Spars and Food Lovers Market stores situated in Rustenburg, Pretoria and elsewhere. It is reported that Giannakopoulus owns the Spar franchises in the following areas: Sediba Plaza in Hartbeespoort; Rustenburg Square; Rustenburg Safari Gardens; Rustenburg Tuscany; Montana in Pretoria North; Orchards in Pretoria North; Karen Park in Pretoria North; Doornpoort in Pretoria North; Rietfontein in Pretoria; Silver Place in Pretoria; Silverton in Pretoria; Wierda Park in Centurion; as well as three Food Lovers Market stores including the Hartbeespoort store where the incident of assault happened. It is also reported that he is building a Galitos outlet next to the said Food Lovers store.
Another former employee from Spar Sediba Plaza recounted how she and two other female employees were just last week subjected to a polygraph test after they reported to Giannakopoulos that they were being sexually harassed by one of his managers.
With tears in her eyes, the employee was at pains to explain how she had been told to take a polygraph test to prove whether she and her two colleagues had lied about the sexual harassment in an attempt to cover up their intentions to steal from the store. All three failed the test and were immediately dismissed by Giannakopoulos.
“I am not a thief and it really hurts that we have been treated in this way. I was pursued by a manager, an older man whom I should look up to as a father figure and his persistence made me so uncomfortable. He kept asking for my mobile number and told me that he wanted to sleep with me. He went as far as to tell me that I was being promoted from the position of a cashier to another position in the cash office, a position which I did not want because it would mean me spending a lot of time close to him. I feared being raped at work or elsewhere by this man because he kept coming on so strong and refused to leave me alone. I reported this to Chris, however, instead of standing up for me or referring the matter to the law enforcement for investigation he ordered me to take a polygraph test. When I supposedly failed the test, Chris fired me.
“I do not understand how three of us with the same complaint could have failed the test yet we have all been subjected to the same persistent sexually loaded approach by this man. There are many others who have been harassed by this man but are afraid to speak out. I would rather have no job and stay at home than go to a place where I am made to feel uneasy and scared everyday. I am not even protected by my boss for telling the truth,” said the former employee.
Another former female employee recounted how in one incident she had been asked by Giannakopoulos to carry a heavy box. When she informed him that the box was too heavy for her to carry alone he was quick to boisterously shout how strange it was that she could not manage to lift a box yet she had the energy for a sexual encounter with two men.
“I have never been so embarrassed in my life like I was that day. Chris was shouting at me in the presence of other male employees who broke out into laughter when Chris mentioned sexual encounters with two men. I felt so humiliated and so uncomfortable. I was not expecting such treatment from my boss. He humiliates us and expects us to keep quiet by threatening us with dismissal or saying that even if we report him to the authorities nothing will happen to him. A lot of staff members are therefore terrified of speaking out,” she said.
Yet another female employee related how she was given an ‘absent’ for simply not wearing her name tag to work. She went on to explain how staff members from Spar were sent for three days training at one of Giannakopoulos’s stores in Montana in Pretoria prior to the opening of his Food Lovers branch in Hartbeespoort in mid-September 2018.
“Chris organised company transport for us to attend the training. But we were all shocked when we were told that we would need to pay R50 each per day for the transport. How do we pay for company transport organised by our employer to go learn a new system that will be used at the new Food Lovers? It made no sense but we paid it. What really hurt was that Chris had given most of us as many as three to six ‘absents’ which meant that our wage for that week was cut by half, if we were lucky to be getting paid that week. We work six days a week at R100 per day or less so with three to six absents our wages amounted to almost nothing. How can we be expected to live like that? He is just exploiting his workers and using ‘absents’ as a way of not paying workers their full wages.
“When the incident happened to our fellow staff member on Friday I could not remain in that shop. I am the breadwinner at home but I phoned my parents and told them that I was scared and not comfortable. I did not feel safe. I left immediately and went to support my fellow female employee because we have to support each other as ladies. What happened to her can happen to me or any other lady. As women we need to speak up and have our voices heard,” she said.
Commenting on last week Friday’s incident, HCDI’s Public Relations & Communications Manager, Nontobeko Mzilethi, said the incident was beyond appalling and unacceptable.
“We are deeply saddened and shocked that at a time when the unabated abuse of women across the country is featuring prominently in the media space on a daily basis, men like Giannakopoulos still have the audacity and the nerve to violently strike a woman the way he did on Friday. Such behavior where an employer views his employees as lesser human beings than himself is totally deplorable.
“We have conducted our own investigations as a community organisation and reports of the physical and verbal abuse as well as exploitation bordering on modern day slavery that all employees under this man’s stable of stores are subjected to daily are beyond grotesque and shocking. The man allegedly flouts all laws governing labour relations in the country. We fervently appeal to all relevant authorities to sweep on his operations and conduct the relevant investigations. These young men and women deserve some form of justice as well as to have their dignity as human beings restored. Furthermore, it seems there are hundreds of Giannakopoulos’s former and current employees who are out there and have been traumatised whilst in the workplace. We appeal to them to contact us on 073 834 3226 so that the necessary investigations and assistance can be rendered to them,” said Mzilethi.
She further commented that as a longtime resident of Hartbeespoort and a regular shopper at Giannakopoulos’s store she and other residents had noticed how faces at the store were always changing.
“It has always been a topic of discussion how staff at that particular store are constantly changing. Now we know why. Had we, as residents of this town known earlier that the situation in that store was that bad and that the level of abuse and exploitation was that extensive I think many of us would have boycotted that shop a long time ago and taken action,” she said.
More of Giannakopoulos’s former and current employees continue to approach HCDI to tell their stories. Allegations against Giannakopoulos border around the following key transgressions:
- Physical violence towards staff members including punching, poking, and slapping
- Harsh verbal abuse on a daily basis
- Degrading of both male and female staff members by making sexually loaded comments and references to their body parts
- Blatant flouting of labour laws
- Staff members have reported that none of them have written contracts with either Spar or Food Lovers Market at Sediba Plaza. It is said that only about three employees who were employed by the previous owner of Spar have contracts otherwise everyone else who joined under the management of Giannakopoulos has never been issued with a contract.
- Fraudulent issuing of payslips amounting to R4 203 per month, yet employee receives R80 per day of 15 hours. Payslip indicates that there is UIF and tax deducted. Employees allege that these are designed to deceive the Department of Labour’s inspectors.
- Staff are required to report for duty at 06h00 and often knock off as late as 23h00, with no remuneration for overtime. During the festive season staff report for duty as early as 03h00, knocking off at 23h00 but are paid a meagre R80 to R100 a day for more than 15hours labour.
- Gross exploitation including working for as long as one week with no pay, denial of lunch and tea breaks
- Random punishment through the issuing of ‘absents’ for petty reasons including brief toilet breaks
- Threatening staff members with dismissal for speaking out and claiming that he is ‘untouchable’
- Forcing staff members to take polygraph tests whenever he pleases, staff allege that the polygraph results are forged, then dismissing staff from work based on their failing the tests.
- Deceiving customers by instructing staff members to utilise benzine to remove expiry dates and sell by dates on various food products including baby foods, potato chips, cool drinks, and various other consumables.
- Bribing police officers by allowing them to collect lunch for free whenever they feel like it
- Giving staff stale and rotten food to eat
- Amongst numerous other transgressions.
Attempts to get comment from Giannakopoulos were in vain as he abruptly cut the phone when HCDI attempted to hear his side of the story.
Asked to comment on the allegations, Food Lovers Market Public Relations Manager Jean Harkett said in an email that the franchise was in the process of conducting an independent investigation into the allegations.
“To be fair to all parties involved, and as both the independent and police investigations are ongoing, it would be irresponsible of us to respond to any requests for comment before the process has been concluded”, said Harkett.
Comment from Spar Head Office is still pending whilst the Department of Labour and the Department of Social Development have responded positively to requests for their urgent intervention.
Allegations by employees that members of the police collect lunch for free from Spar has resulted in staff members fearing approaching the police station for assistance. Asked if there was an official arrangement for Spar to give members of the police service free lunch, Hartbeespoort Police Station’s Station Commander, Colonel Van Der Walt said there was no such official arrangement between the police station and Spar / Giannakopoulos.
He further indicated that all cases against Giannakopoulos reported to the police station will be properly investigated with the relevant feedback being given to the complainants.