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

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline 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.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid