For the past 12 years, about 150 people have swept the streets and cleared blocked drains in Uitenhage and Motherwell. They work in a government-funded programme administered by the Eastern Cape Department of Transport.
But despite their long service, they are still casual workers on temporary contracts, taking home just R744 a month.
The sight of people in orange uniforms carrying brooms and garbage bags, sweeping and weeding roadside verges, often alone, has been a common one across the country since 2003 when the Department of Public Works launched its Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).
This programme was meant to provide temporary poverty relief through short-term jobs. Participants were supposed to get additional skills training, so they could go on to better jobs after their EPWP contracts had ended.
Instead, many became “permanent casuals”, trapped in low-paid contracts and without any power to bargain collectively over their wages, working conditions or health and safety.
A group of Eastern Cape EPWP workers, gathered outside the Babs Madlakane Hall in Uitenhage, say they earned R360 a month in 2007. They were told their pay would increase by R100 a year. But their wages 12 years later show an increase of just R32 a year. They only get two days of work a week each at an hourly rate of R11.22. Their earnings are not nearly enough to live on.
Lack of response
This group of workers has held several pickets outside the office of the Department of Transport demanding permanent employment. Each time, they are promised feedback within three days. But this never materialises.
“I have been here 10 years. Now we are old,” says Nomfusi Sinyanza. “We cannot get jobs anywhere as this is the only experience we have. We don’t get those jobs that are advertised on government billboards. They have ruined our careers. They promised us upskilling when we joined, but we haven’t received any.”
Zuziwe Nene, who has also been with the EPWP project for 10 years, says: “It is not an easy job. We have to keep the streets clean with just a broom and a spade. I am so angry. I demand my permanent employment.”
Velile Nonganana says he has grown old without any rights. “I don’t feel alright about this situation. I’ve been doing this job many years now.”
Local activist Phumla Runeli is also part of the group. She says they have a supervisor who only coordinates attendance and the supply of uniforms. There is no manager or payroll department where they can make queries.
When the workers go to the provincial offices in Nelson Mandela Bay, their pay is docked for taking time off work. They receive contradictory information from whoever is assigned to speak with them that day.
Without a union or a collective agreement, the problems voiced by the workers have been ignored for years. For example, they only found out in mid-August that they are now contracted to the provincial Department of Transport and not the provincial Department of Public Works.
The group has many problems. Allegedly, they are only provided with safety boots in one size and they are too big for most of the women. The project is also short of wheelbarrows. The workers are often provided with only brooms and spades. Sometimes they get gloves and masks to protect them from dust, but sometimes they don’t.
Siyabulela Somtsewu says they used to participate in a savings scheme their employer started for them in 2007. The workers and the employer would each pay R20 a month into a fund from which the workers could later withdraw. According to Somtsewu, Nene and Sinyanza, these savings seem to have vanished.
“The first coordinator said we would get our savings back with interest, but now the current coordinator says the scheme stopped in 2015. Another person says the deductions are continuing. Who is right, and who is wrong?” Runeli asks.
Some members of the group earn R865 a month, so those who earn R744 — the majority of the group — say they are being cheated of R121 a month.
The workers are also unhappy about having to queue at the Post Office to collect their wages, which are not always paid on the same day of the month.
“The department brought the Capitec people to us to open accounts, but then never deposited money. That was in 2011 or 2012. We were never told what happened. They then just told us to go to the Post Office.
“Now, we queue there like it’s an old-age payment. The supervisors tell us when our payment is there, but sometimes we queue and then we are told at the counter that our money is not there – maybe tomorrow, maybe next week,” says Somtsewu.
The workers do not qualify for paid sick leave, unemployment insurance fund benefits or maternity leave. They get no payslips, just a receipt from the Post Office with their name, identity number and the amount paid over the counter to them.
According to the National Minimum Wage Act, the legal minimum wage for EPWP workers is R11 per hour. However, since these workers have been sweeping the same streets and clearing the same drains for up to 12 years, if they were employed permanently by the municipality like other sweepers, they would be eligible for a minimum wage of more than R40 per hour under the collective agreement for the sector.
In 2015, the plight of many casual workers improved when section 198 of the Labour Relations Act was amended to state that certain workers can only have temporary contracts for a maximum period of three months. However, the act also details a long list of workers who are excluded from this protection, such as seasonal workers and people employed in a Public Works programme. But these exclusions were made on the basis that this work is not ongoing.
For this reason, many EPWP workers are entitled to labour rights, according to Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) media coordinator Ronald Wesso.
“This situation … shows the real nature of the EPWP, which government claims is a means of creating ‘job opportunities’ for people to gain skills and experience that will allow them to leave the programme and enter permanent jobs. Instead, it is a means through which the different arms of the state can access cheap and insecure labour,” he says.
“It often goes together with elite enrichment through tenders, while the workers are stuck in these poverty jobs for years on end not knowing if their contracts will be renewed from month to month.”
Unionising the workers
Recently, the CWAO successfully helped 1 500 EPWP casual workers in Ekurhuleni get permanent jobs. Wesso says this was achieved by the workers organising several protest marches to Johannesburg City Hall and ANC headquarters Luthuli House, joining a union and referring a section 198 dispute to the South African Local Government Bargaining Council.
“In situations like this, where workers have been employed for years, there is a strong case to be made that these are not genuine temporary or training positions and that the EPWP is simply used to avoid the responsibilities of the employer under the Labour Relations Act,” Wesso says.
In Uitenhage and Motherwell, the group of EPWP workers has now joined the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa), a South African Federation of Trade Unions affiliate that unionised the successful EPWP Ekurhuleni workers.
Demawusa provincial coordinator Siphiwo Ndunyana says he has arranged a meeting between the union, the workers and the regional director of the provincial department and if necessary, will approach the bargaining council after that to declare a dispute over the workers’ temporary status.
This article was first published by New Frame