EPWP workers in East London demand better working conditions

EPWP workers filled the Orlando staduim in East London over the weekend for a mass meeting to discuss a way forward and to formally join Nupsaw. All photos by Anele Mbi

The EPWP workers have vowed to fight until their demands are met.

Around 300 angry EPWP workers from across Buffalo City who say they are tired of exploitation and cheap labour went to the city hall to confront the mayor and his colleagues. They demanded that the municipality end precarious work and ensure that all workers receive a living wage, paid leave, safe working conditions, union rights and other benefits. The EPWP workers also wanted the municipality to know they are tired of its sex-for-job malpractices.

EPWP projects were introduced by government in 2003 as a complementary measure to reduce poverty and curb rising unemployment.

The protesters, who were mainly in their 40s, came from many Buffalo City townships and were representing temporary workers from various municipal departments and EPWP projects, including Roadworks, Sanitation, Solid waste/Recycling, Purification, Beautification and community work programmes. The salaries of temporary workers differs depending on the projects they are employed for but the lowest stipend is R780 per month while the highest is R2,600.  All these workers are not entitled to benefits such as maternity leave, unemployment insurance, leave, or covid allowance.

Many protesters feel that their lives are being put at risk by their employer, BCMM, as the municipality forces them to go into unsafe workplaces as providers of an essential service.

Malibongwe Mkhupheni from NU2 who works in Solid waste/Recycling said that as temporary workers, they work in more difficult and dangerous situations than permanently employed staff.  He has been retrenched twice before, by WHBO, a construction company, and by a road works company. The 43-year-old Mkhupheni, who earns R1,800 per month, was very angry when he spoke at the mass rally, deploring the three years he has volunteered for BCMM. Left with the different overalls and boots supplied by the municipality from the various projects he has worked on, there is no more work for him to feed his children.

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One woman from a beautification project mentioned that in the field, they lack sun protective clothing and those injured at work must find their own way to get medical attention. And while permanent workers can leave work freely, temporary workers are bound to be at the workplace from 08h00 to 16h30.

Workers protesting outside City Hall on Thursday, April 15.

At a mass meeting organised by the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw) and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), workers revealed that they had been dismissed recently from various projects, or face certain dismissal like Mkhupheni who pointed out that his contract and 68 others at a recycling project will be terminated on Tuesday the 20th of April. Many of the workers are of the view that whenever temporary contract are terminated, local government councillors used the opportunity to get their friends and family members employed.

Thembi, who used to be an informal trader at NU6 Mall and previously worked in a clothing store, said councillors and ward committee members are the ones making them their ‘toys’. Like other workers, at age 55, she has many responsibilities at home: to look after the children, to buy groceries and attend to other household needs. “I was forced to work until the day before I went to theatre to give birth. From theatre I went back to my work,” said Nomsa Xabayi, a worker leader from Mdantsane. “If you are absent from work, R170 will be deducted from your stipend or you could find someone to work in your place”, she explained.

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Nomsa worked in Cape Town until she resigned in 2014 and relocated to Mdantsane. She started working for BCMM in 2014 in a roadworks project for 12 days per month, earning R2,000. She is proud to be a member of the task team organising the temporary workers because she sees herself as the worst victim of EPWP.  Over the years, she says, they had several meetings with the premier and mayor, but only ever moving from pillar to post. Now their only hope is to organise action.

The report of the task team after negotiations with management on Thursday was not accepted by the majority of the protesting workers. The employer’s response was that they will conduct a thorough investigation of all the complaints raised by workers and report back on the 6th of May. Workers saw this as a delaying tactic as well as a strategy to try tire them out.

At the rally there was a large group of community health workers who spoke about their similar experiences of exploitation and casualisation of their labour. The meeting agreed that the union needs to focus on legal battles while the key task facing EPWP workers is to organise and mobilise other workers for action throughout the province.  

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