Why does South Africa encourage the exploitation of workers?

2016-04-19 20:46

Imagine being a 45 year old working as a cleaner to support your family. Everyday you wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for the nightmare that is commuting in Cape Town to your workplace. But first make sure that the kids are ready for school and have enough food. Finally you get to work. You work hard to please your employer and they are indeed pleased with your service. Then comes the evening trip back home. You must endure the pain of commuting in Cape Town to arrive at home when it is dark again.

At this point you are tired. It would be nice to just take a hot bath and rest but depending on your children's age, you may have to prepare food and do the dishes. You did not see them much, and have no idea if they really went to school or bunked. Did they do their homework? Come month end, for all the days you followed this routine, you get R2 000 per month from your employer if you are lucky. From that you must provide food, clothes, commuter fare, and other bills.

Your agent has taken half or more of the money paid for your services in the organisation whose buildings you clean everyday. You have no job security since you are a contract worker. Blessed if you are one of the acute minority who have medical aid but for the majority of outsourced workers, medical aid and pension schemes are nothing but a dream. Your agent gets rich through your pain. Lose your job, get ill, or die and your children are condemned to life worse than the poverty they were already living in when you had a job.

Many organisations claim that they cannot afford to end outsourcing. Actually they can. The building will need someone to clean it for as long as the company is still in business so the post does not go away. If you cut out the middleman then give workers the money then their income improves slightly. The University of the Western Cape demonstrated affordability during the protests when they agreed to pay outsourced workers an additional R2 000 per month when they already spend so much on outsourcing. UWC is just one organisation but others can afford it too if they eliminate agents. Who wants to have employers that are hard to get rid of when you no longer want them? Agents are in business because they are an easy way out of the protectionist labour laws.

So the work and money is there. It is just a matter of will to end the pain of many outsourced workers. But enriching a few people through agents while exploiting poor black people is much too convenient. Just as they were exploited in Apartheid South Africa, they must just accept that their cheap black labour is good for the employers.

But maybe there is hope for exploited workers. Deputy President Ramaphosa suggests that the National Economic Development and Labour Council has accepted that South Africa needs a minimum wage. The trouble is how much it should be. Whatever amount is set, it should enable working South Africans to provide for their basic needs which is the whole purpose of a minimum wage. The one set for domestic workers and farm workers sadly does not meet this expectation.

The idea is to set the minimum wage high enough so that those who have jobs are disqualified from receiving free services such as shelter, water, sanitation, and so on. But South Africans who were not so liberal in Apartheid South Africa will jump up and down claiming undue State interference in the economy. If there is exploitation on a massive  scale then such interference is warranted.

Importantly, paying people enough to live on would mean there are more people for municipalities to tax. Beneficial for cities but not for small municipalities where unemployment is high. Perhaps spending on infrastructure would have to target those smaller municipalities. The general idea is to move from a State that provides free basic services to one where people are able to provide for their basic needs.

South Africa will not move to that if we keep obsessing over job creation without thinking about the type of jobs created and how much those in employment are paid. Paying people enough to live on would be the first step in moving to a more caring society because there will come a time when the plight of exploited workers gets exploited by extremists. Think for a minute about how the EFF can exploit this. Exploited people will not put up with exploitation forever.

End their pain by giving the cleaner, security guard, cashier, and every other outsourced worker some comfort. Because in the end, each of us needs financial security which enables us to enjoy other constitutional rights such as access to adequate shelter, health care, education and start enjoying life. Working all your life with nothing to show for it is inhumane. It is modern day slavery since you can only buy food.

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