AS THE strike at Unilever’s factory in Pietermaritzburg drags through its third week, the company’s management has clammed up. It is not issuing statements on the strike or replying to phone calls and e-mails.

The strike by 220 members of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) at the sites of the Tea Factory and Food Solutions started on January 17. Some popular brands made at the Unilever plant include Joko Tea, Glen Tea and Lipton.

Negotiations between management and Fawu, led by its general secretary Katishi Masemola, continued on Tuesday. The strike is as much over wage increases as a new, lower-paying grading structure Unilever has implemented.

"The strike action revolves around the actual wage increment that workers want at 9%," Mr Masemola said. The strike was also to demand " the reversal of a youth wage subsidy-type model where grades are lowered in terms of remuneration rates to employ young workers at lower rates while the content of the grades, or jobs, remains the same".

A settlement was not yet in sight but there have been slight compromises from both sides. Latest was the striking workers indicating they would drop their wage increase demand to 8% if the original grading structure was brought back.

Mr Masemola said Unilever’s offer remained at 7% and it was "refusing to review this sort of grading that has seen new and younger workers employed at lower wages".

Repeated phone calls and e-mail messages since Monday morning, have elicited no reply from Unilever’s external affairs and media manager, Unathi Mgobozi.

Earlier, Unilever said that contingency plans were in place to ensure that distribution to clients would not be affected.

So far, there have been no reports of shortages from large clients, although it is difficult to tell whether smaller clients and stores have been affected by the strike.

Food Solutions supplies various brands, mainly canned food, as well as Knorr.