News / Africa

Beneath South Africa’s Illegal Strikes, an Army of Informal Workers

Striking miners listen to an address by their leader at the AngloGold Ashanti mine in Carletonville, northwest of Johannesburg, October 19, 2012.
Striking miners listen to an address by their leader at the AngloGold Ashanti mine in Carletonville, northwest of Johannesburg, October 19, 2012.
Anita Powell
— With rampant wildcat strikes continuing in South Africa’s mining sector, and with mines firing tens of thousands of strikers, how are companies staying afloat?  Welcome to the world of labor brokering -- companies that find contract workers to fill gaps. Unions have fought to outlaw the practice of labor brokering, but the brokers say they fill a critical role in a nation with strict labor laws and an unskilled workforce. 

South Africa’s Gold Fields mining company fired 8,500 workers on Tuesday after weeks of illegal strikes at its mines.

The workers were hoping to win better living and working conditions and higher pay.  But, the harsh reality is that there are many, many, many others just like them who are ready to take over their jobs.

In fact, major companies have great reserves of labor they can draw from at a moment's notice.

The companies find these replacements through labor brokers, the middlemen who fill gaps in the workforce when workers go on strike. The brokers' methods are simple: they drive around in pickup trucks, called bakkies, and round up willing workers.

The workers’ short contracts don’t give them the same legal status as permanent employees, though they sometimes perform the same work. The employer pays the broker directly; the broker pays the workers.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions said earlier this year that the nation has some 980,000 labor-brokered workers.  They say up to 30 percent of the workforce is involved in atypical, casual labor that is not fully protected under labor laws.

Lesiba Seshoka of the National Union of Mineworkers says the system is prone to abuse. He says brokered workers are often threatened with their jobs if they join a union. He also says the brokers take a substantial cut of the brokered workers' salaries.

He says all of the mining companies that have experienced strikes have used labor brokers. His union and the main trade federation have fought unsuccessfully to ban the brokers outright.

“In one way or another they are enslaving the majority of the people," said Seshoka. "Because in a sense, a labor broker hires you for a company. You work for the company but you are paid by the labor broker in the mining industry. And that is problematic because if the company pays, for example, 4,000 for its work force, and gives 4,000 which is the same amount, to the labor broker, the labor broker then gives you 2,000, or 2,500 or so . That is problematic because that does not help us in working towards a living wage.”

Basil Skopelitis is the CEO of a Johannesburg-based labor brokerage called Ziyabuya. His company mainly works in the construction industry. In the last year, he’s placed between 600 and 800 workers.

He says two things make him necessary: South Africa’s strict labor laws, which he says often compel employers to keep underperforming workers; and a general lack of skilled and well-educated workers.

He says his company fills a valuable role in placing often unskilled workers into jobs they badly need, but he says that there are unscrupulous labor brokers out there.

“I‘m not going to profess that all labor brokers are angels, because I know first hand not all of them are, but I do believe that if properly regulated the government can use labor brokers as a tool to help secure a large pool of the unemployable people in this country,” said Skopelitis.

Lonmin, the platinum mining giant whose workers sparked the wildcat strikes in August, says nearly 40 percent of its workforce are contract workers.  Spokeswoman Sue Vey says the company counts 11,000 contractors and 28,000 permanent employees on its rolls.

Despite opposition to the practice, South Africa’s unemployment figures and tight labor laws appear to bolster the demand for labor brokers.  The government estimates nearly a quarter of South Africans are unemployed.

The brokers provide an answer to this perennial question: in a market where workers outnumber the available jobs, is it better to have a job that’s not ideal, or no job at all?

Seshoka says the unions think that question is unfair.

“Of course from the look of things it will be better that they have a job," he said. "But if those people are really necessary in the economy that they are employed by labor brokers, why can’t they be employed directly by the employers?”

But with tens of thousands of open mining jobs, many unemployed South Africans may soon find themselves making that very choice.

You May Like

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid