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Zimbabweans are not the problem in South Africa, Big business is

26 Apr 2020 at 08:17hrs | Views
While studying at the University of Cape Town in 1997, I discovered the presence of "gaps" in the South African labour market.  Sometimes my friends
Credence, Fair, Chi and I would catch a taxi from Rondesbosch and go to Itai and Dudu's shared flat in Salt River.

There, we would drink and hang out, until it was time to go out. It was on one of these drink-filled Saturdays that I met Shingirai. An artisan by profession, he worked at Eskom. Back then, you wouldn't find that many Zimbabweans working in formal employment.

So the novelty of meeting a Zimbabwean living in Salt River intrigued us a lot.
Shingirai was sociable, humble and fairly accessible. One Saturday afternoon, while we were having drinks, as usual, he advised us that he had to leave early.

Caught up in our joyful camaraderie, Shingirai's departure proved to be a slight damper on the day's proceedings. However, it was the reason why he had to leave early that intrigued us all.

Despite his fairly comfortable, seemingly well-paying job at Eskom, Shingirai worked at a fast food outlet on nights and weekends. He had discovered a "gap" in the employment market.

To augment his salary, Shingirai had opted to work two jobs. He wasn't the only person that had seen this gap: Chi, while studying, worked at a frozen yoghurt outlet in Rondesbosch at night.

And, on holidays, I could name a dozen students from Zimbabwe that worked as substitute drivers and labourers at the airport. Somehow, a litany of supposedly menial jobs was always available to foreigners and South Africans.

This was roughly 23 years ago; but the situation remains no different to the present: many restaurants and fast food outlets are mostly staffed with Zimbabwean cooks, waiters and waitresses.

I should know: when I used to drink alcohol, nearly all of the Newscafe restaurants that I frequented in Johannesburg, from Midrand to Woodmead and Rosebank, employed a disproportionately high number of Zimbabweans.

Mostly bilingual, they served customers professionally and seldom surprised a few by speaking Shona. Then, a lot of people came to understand that at certain places, foreign waitrons would serve you. Yet, it wasn't just Newscafe that had developed a profitable penchant for hiring Zimbabweans.

Capello, Spur and Dros had lots of Zimbabweans working in conditions that defied logic. As many former waitrons regularly attest to, they were compelled to work under horrid, slave-like conditions.

They didn't get a minimum wage, and were expected to earning a living from tips alone. They didn't get medical aid or sick leave. They didn't get the benefit of transport money, job security or registration with the Unemployed Insurance Fund. They would get, for all their arduous struggles, only tips from hungry and thirsty strangers.

But nobody ever stood up to say the hospitality industry should revise working conditions for thousands of abused, hardworking employees throughout the length and breadth of South Africa.


Life went on, and the very organisations that deliberately underpaid and mistreated Zimbabweans, have in fact grown from strength to strength.

All the while, they have contributed massively towards South Africa's fiscus and been allowed to get away with capitalist murder.    

Worse still, to the detriment of many young, desperate and hopeful employees, at some point, a number of purportedly reputable supermarket chains joined the manipulative fray.

They discovered you could hire foreign and South African workers through agents (labour workers) and effectively pay them a pittance for a salary.

The supermarket chains gained immensely in the last two decades, and have even become household names that frequently dabble in highly praised corporate social responsibility programmes that "serve" disadvantaged communities.

Yet, you must wonder how well these beloved brands would do, if mandated to pay fair wages and offer basic, universal employment benefits to all and sundry?

And would customers be willing to pay much more for fancy meals and basic commodities, to ensure that restaurant and supermarket employees, regardless of their nationality or race, earn a decent wage?

The gaps in the labour market, identified by mostly foreign workers, have helped to drive productive capitalist ventures across South Africa.

Like the hugely lucrative mining industry, the hospitality and food industries have been built on the unrelenting, unjust and obvious exploitation of mainly poor, vulnerable and often loathed black workers.

Still, who, in the whole food chain, has really benefited from employers abusing workers in every manner possible?

Think of all the supermarkets, restaurants and fast food outlets that have brought produce from small and large-scale farmers.

Think of the milk manufacturers whose products occupy large swathes of retail space in supermarkets.

Think of the privileged, wealthy individuals and families that often order food through UberEats and Mr Delivery.

They, too, have benefited enormously from the availability of cheap labour at supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food stores.

However, comforted by delightfully cheap, wonderful service and the impressive, subtle ease of modern technology, only a handful of people have castigated the inhumane exploitation of foreign workers.

Today, finance minister Tito Mboweni wants big business to comply with labour regulations and stop employing large numbers of foreign workers.

Indeed, he must enforce labour laws.

While he is at it, could Mboweni punish big business for consistently flouting labour laws?

Could Mboweni look into forcing big business to compensate workers that have been severely exploited since 1997?

Suffice it to say that, the gaps that emerged after April 1994 will not disappear, unless employers and the government are willing to invest in the implementation of fair labour practices and remuneration.

Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based writer and commentator. His debut novel,
Mutserendende: The African in Us, will be published in 2020.


Source - Tafi Mhaka
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