Zimbabwean immigrants working in South Africa are calling on the government of Jacob Zuma to protect them against abuse by unscrupulous employers. They claim business operators are taking advantage of their desperation. The Zimbabweans believe many firms are exploiting foreigners in their attempt to survive the global credit crunch.

South African businesses are bracing for the devastating sting of the worldwide economic crisis. Job losses are being reported in a variety of sectors, while pundits and analysts warn consumers to curb their spending. Zimbabwean immigrants working in the country complain they're being abused by companies eager to save money.

Over the years Zimbabweans have found employment in an array of industries including catering, construction, security and farming. These sectors are being shunned by local workers because of the low wages. Desperate foreigners don't have that luxury.

In the wake of the global economic meltdown, those low wages have dropped even further and in some instances disintegrated.

25-year-old Hilton Mushambi has been working as a waiter at a restaurant in Sandton, Johannesburg, for the past 4 years. He says his employer has removed their basic salaries. This means the only money he earns is tips left by customers.

?The problem is we?re not being treated fairly like the local ones,? Mushambi says. ?Because the local ones they can go to the government or institutions which they know they can be helped. But like us, the foreigners, we?ve got nowhere to go. We?ve got nowhere to complain. We?re not being treated fairly like the locals ones. I?m not happy there.?  

Zimbabweans allege they've been subjected to unfair dismissals, wage cuts, non-payment and the withdrawal of employment benefits to name a few.

Ndumiso Malaba is a father of three working as a farm laborer in Limpopo. For the past five years his monthly wage has risen from 500 rand to 900. He claims last month his wage was slashed to 450 rand.His employer blamed shrinking agricultural output, ?They?re underpaying us because they know that we?re from Zimbabwe. So if they can, say, they can give us 20 rand - we are going to be happy because of the situation we left behind. [We don?t have papers]. We don?t have rights. That?s why they are treating us like hell,? he says. 

However, the upcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup has seen an increase in construction projects all over South Africa. Construction crews often comprise foreigners, who also complain of abuse and exploitation. Machona Zimbudzi has worked for three years as a casual painter for a construction company in Pretoria. While he's paid 250 rand per week, he claims he's owed at least R5000 in unpaid wages, ?We?re not getting our salaries. For us to go and claim [salaries], it?s a problem because they ask you about the papers. When you are ill you just go home and you get ill at home. So the government must help us,? he says.

Security guard Jeckchan Mabayo is pleading with Jacob Zuma's government to intervene, ?When it is compensation, let it be done properly. Ask them never to treat us like we?re foreigners. Just treat us like we?re people just the same as anyone else in the country.?

Home Affairs minister Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula says while the government will continue to protect the rights of all workers via the department of labor, foreign workers can also stop the abuse by legalizing their status in the country. She urges Zimbabweans to take advantage of the special dispensation permits set to be issued at the Tshwane Interim Refugees Office, situated at the Pretoria show grounds. ?And we?ve opened the show grounds for processing Zimbabweans who are in the country illegally,? she says.  Some of them are coming to apply for asylum seeker documents. So we talk about huge numbers of Zimbabweans who are already in South Africa, and who are coming to South Africa for different reasons! So out of 800, 80% you can be assured, are Zimbabweans.?

But with a number of unions in South Africa up in arms over job losses, analysts warn retrenched locals may resort to attacking foreigners seeking work.