A global coalition of labour unions led a demonstration outside a Massmart shareholder meeting today (17 January), opposing plans to sell a majority stake in the South African retailer to Wal-Mart Stores.

Wal-Mart announced plans in November to acquire a 51% stake in the business. The world’s largest retail originally intended to buy the whole of Massmart but, after talks with shareholders, scaled back its bid.

However, the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which represents Massmart’s workers, said it plans to challenge the proposed takeover through South African competition law and in the political realm, and will “continue to directly educate its union membership about the implications for workers should the takeover proceed”.

Speaking about the impact of the acquisition, should it be allowed to go ahead, Tyotyo James, the first deputy president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said: “Despite the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa remains one of the most inequitable societies in the world. The acquisition of 51% of Massmart by Wal-Mart will cut out even more local ownership of one of the major retail players in the country. Although Wal-Mart has tried to convince the public otherwise, history has shown us that the entry of the world’s largest company would not be good for the consumers, suppliers, or people of South Africa.”

Meanwhile, Mduduzi Mbongwe, the deputy general of SACCAWU, described what he claimed were Wal-Mart’s “relentless attacks on workers and unions” and said that its attempts to engage with the US retailer have “thus far been discouraging”.

Mbongwe added that if Wal-Mart continues down this path “without taking the concerns of workers and their union seriously, the outcome can only be industrial strife”.

Alke Boessiger, Head of the Commerce Sector for UNI Global Union called for the country and union to set “strong standards” during Wal-Mart’s initial bid process to protect workers local suppliers and community interests.

Michael Bride, the deputy organising director for global strategy of the US-based UFCW Union also described the “devastating effect” that Wal-Mart’s business model has on communities, small businesses and companies in the supply chain.