I have a friend who lives in a squatter camp, in the northern parts of Johannesburg. This guy is not your stereo-typical squatter camp dweller. He’s bright, he’s sharp, he’s confident, articulate, what my mates down in the southern suburbs of Cape Town would call, a “good oke.” He plays guitar, loves rock music (I told you he wasn’t your typical darkie in the hood), speaks impeccable English and is just generally a likeable, affable fellow.
We both share an appreciation for SAs finest beverage, Castle Lager, so I often visit him in his spacious shack and lucky for us, his shack is right next to a tavern, so whenever I’m there, we indulge in a favourite South African past-time, sharing a few 750ml bottles of Castle Lager. One Saturday, whilst enjoying a few sips of this much-loved drink, my friend began to tell me about his troubles at work.
My friend just so happens to be a driver for the South African Post Office, helping deliver mail on a daily basis, to a few suburbs in northern Johannesburg. He is still in his early twenties. After he completed matric, like most young South Africans, because of a lack of funds, he couldn’t take his education any further. He spent a couple of years looking for employment, but because he wasn’t “skilled” enough, he couldn’t find any work (is all this sounding a little too familiar?). After spending a couple of years without any success at finding work, eventually one of the people in his community, who happens to have a junior managerial position at the Post Office, arranged for him to find employment at the Post Office as a driver.
Of course my friend was elated and he took to his new job with great enthusiasm. However not even two months into his job, being a sharp lad, he realised that this wasn’t the “Promised Land” that it had appeared to be when he initially started. (This is where we pick up the story, with me sharing a beer with my friend at his shack). You see it turns out that my friend and thousands of his colleagues at the Post Office, where employed as temporary contractors, through labour brokers. This meant that they missed out on all the perks and benefits that come with being a full-time employee. With this arrangement, the brokerage took two-thirds (that’s right), two-thirds of their monthly salaries and paid them only a third. As a driver with the Post Office, if my friend was a full-time employee, he would be earning a gross salary of roughly ten thousand rand (which is a pittance really), but now because he was just a temp, he was grossing around three and a half thousand rand a month. That means, instead of paying him the full ten thousand, the Post Office would pay his brokerage that amount, the brokerage would take its cut (the two thirds that I mentioned earlier) and end up paying him the three and a half thousand gross mentioned above. What utter injustice I thought, as I took a huge gulp of the ice cold Castle.
But the story gets better (or perhaps I should say worse?) It also turns out that most of these brokerages that the Post Office uses to employ people are actually owned by senior Post Office managers. So there are people at the Post Office, who’ve worked for over a decade and yet still remain temps, because this benefits senior management. Senior management, deliberately hire people as temps and keep them in that state, just so they can rip them off and steal two-thirds of what would be their monthly salaries. By now I was fuming. How could we live in a society where such greed was thriving? These people work long, thankless hours, only to be ripped off each month by senior managers who earn fat salaries, drive fancy cars and live in huge suburban houses. What kind of inhuman greed is this, I thought? I was reminded of that passage from the novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell, “in order to succeed in the world it was necessary to be brutal, selfish, and unfeeling: to push others aside and take advantage of their misfortune: to undersell and crush out one’s competition by fair means or foul: to consider one’s own interests first in every case, absolutely regardless of the well being of others.” What kind of world is this I wondered?
Needless to say, my friend and his colleagues (as he was explaining to me), went on strike, demanding that they be given permanent posts, with all the benefits that come with that status. As I write this, the northern part of Johannesburg, where my friend works, has had no mail delivery for almost two months because of this strike. Of course, the people in suburbia probably think that it’s just another aimless strike, by unproductive, burdensome people, who are looking to earn more than they deserve. But what of the injustice that has been served to these people? What of the greed which seeks to take the little that they earn and apportion it to people who are clearly more affluent than them? What of the labour brokerage system and its unjust redistribution of income from workers to a greedy elite? Fellow South Africans, what of all these unfair, unjust practices? Shall we continue to tolerate them, in the name of “creating jobs” and building a strong economy?
All this from a drunken conversation, with a very good mate, in a simple shack. As for my friend, I referred him to a lawyer friend of mine, who I met during our student days at the University of Cape Town, hoping that the lawyer friend would take up the cause of justice on behalf of all these innocent people. However, the question that I can’t seem to shake off is: do we really need labour brokers?