Migrant labour: bad to worse

2013-11-19 08:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

After the Marikana massacre, the ‘unreformed’ 120-year-old system is back on the agenda. But the odds are stacked against changing it now, writes Dewald van Rensburg

Calls to reform the mining industry’s age-old migrant-labour system are mounting after last year’s strike wave and the Marikana massacre shone the international spotlight on living conditions at mines.

The system will be interrogated in the delayed second phase of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry dealing with “social” issues at mines.

The framework agreement brokered by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to restore peace in the sector also decries “the culture introduced to mining communities by the migrant-labour system” and commits stakeholders to intervene.

Ironically, the most pressing reform is to the only thing that has changed since the onset of democracy: the housing of the migrant-labour force.

The only major change, driven by companies and labour, was the dismantling of the hostel system, according to labour analyst Gavin Hartford, the executive director of The Esop Shop, an advisory services firm.

The problem now is not migration itself, but the new pressure on migrants due to changes in the accommodation system and associated debt spiral, says Hartford.

The living-out allowance of roughly R1 800 a month that took the hostels’ place is now generally seen as an unmitigated disaster. “When the living-out allowance was instituted, no one asked where [the workers] will stay,” says Hartford.

Instead of finding better rental accommodation, mine workers have contributed to ballooning shantytowns around the mines.

According to Hartford, the number of dependants has grown, as did personal-debt levels, as workers sought credit to fund new accommodation expenses.

Apart from the phenomenon of mine workers establishing second families near the mines, they now face a number of costs that were previously covered by employers.

The upshot is that the living-out allowances do not actually cover the costs of living out. This means that remittances to the rural “labour-sending areas” are probably declining, according to Hartford.

Elize Strydom, the head of labour relations at the Chamber of Mines, says: “None of us foresaw that people would be willing to go set up squatter camps next to the mines.”

The allowance is now firmly entrenched and gets paid to about 45% of workers on gold mines and to 60% of those on platinum mines in the “Category 4 to 8” occupations, the bulk of the underground labour force.

The resultant living conditions also represent a real operational problem for mines that have employees who “live badly, sleep badly and eat badly”, thereby endangering themselves and their crews, says Strydom.

According to Graham Herbert, the managing director of recruiting bureau Teba, the allowance should have been paid to landlords and not to workers.

One proposal to reform the system is gaining traction, but would require undoing the “basic architecture” of the gold and platinum industries, says Hartford.

South African gold and platinum mines run for just 266 days a year – something that is unique to the country.

The solution put forward by Teba is the adoption of a full-year production schedule, with workers only staying on the mines for four continuous months, interspersed with two-month breaks – in effect making the system more migratory.

That could provide the answer to the productivity crises in gold and platinum mining, as well as to the social consequences of migrant labour.

This would require more workers, but “sweating the assets” could make the costing impact either neutral or better, according to Hartford.

Another equally radical proposal is to undo the living-out allowance in its current form. One labour relations veteran in the mining sector told City Press that mines and unions should agree to attach conditions to the allowance for new recruits.

This would be proof that they are using the cash to rent real accommodation.

The same condition could be imposed on existing workers in the coming rounds of wage talks, according to the veteran.

Expecting migrants to relocate their families to the mines is also a nonstarter, says Strydom. If a family stops using the land granted to it by its traditional authority, they lose it.

According to Herbert, the land-tenure system in areas governed by traditional authorities presents another problem.

He believes mines would do better by helping mine workers invest in houses “back home”, but the lack of private property in rural areas makes mortgages impossible.

The migrant-labour system’s dysfunction goes beyond the housing situation.

There are also “no resources dedicated to finding workers who have returned home”, says Herbert.

According to him, provident funds and the statutory-compensation system for lung diseases do not spend enough on tracking former employees, resulting in hundreds of thousands of former mine workers not receiving their money.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.