INTERVIEW: EPWP Workers’ Struggle for Permanent Jobs

#OutsourcingMustFall Rally, Johannesburg, February 2017

At the end of October the MWP interviewed a leader of the Gauteng EPWP workers about the situation facing them since their last round of marches and protest action. A new struggle will almost certainly be necessary as contracts come to an end on 31 March 2020. In the interview, a planned meeting between the the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development and the workers’ leaders, set for Friday, 1 November is mentioned. At the last minute the meeting was “postponed until further notice”. Workers are mobilising for mass meetings to discuss the way forward in light of this latest development.

Q. What is EPWP?

A. The Expanded Public Works Programme is a national government scheme. It was created to develop skills for the people deprived skills by the apartheid regime. There are lots of people who do not have trades. EPWP is planned and run nationally under the Deputy President and Nedlac [National Economic Development and Labour Council]. From there it is passed to the provinces to implement.

In Gauteng, the Premier hands much of the EPWP programme to the Department of Infrastructure Development (DID). Unfortunately, the DID managers don’t understand it. But the metros and municipalities run programmes as well.

Q. What are the pay and conditions like for EPWP workers?

A. First of all, our employers will not label us as “workers”. At first they called us “beneficiaries of the programme”. But workers protested saying “we are working for what we get”. So then they started calling us “participants”. By those two words – “beneficiary” and “participant” – you are denied a salary and given a ‘stipend’ determined by Nedlac.

We are not covered by the LRA [Labour Relations Act]. Rather, there was a document that was developed which is called the Ministerial Determination.  Workers call it “draconian” because it dehumanizes them by denying them the normal benefits of employment. There is no payslip. There is no UIF. Those under the DID are currently earning something like R2,000 per month. But some workers, for example under the Department of Health earn R3,500.

Q. We understand that contracts are ending in March next year. What is the situation facing the workers?

A. The situation is very volatile. The current contracts started on 1 April 2019 for one year. They expire 31 March 2020. But this is not the workers first contract – it is their sixth. They started working in 2013. And the contracts are renewed every year through the pressure of the workers. Originally, we were only supposed to work twelve months to develop our skills so we could move on and find work.

But the DID did not give us skills development. They just took the workers, gave them shovels and said “go and shovel there”; or, “take this broom and sweep there”. What sort of skills are they? We start to sweep when we are five years of age. I don’t have to go to university or school to learn to sweep – I sweep at home! Or to be told how to shovel? I do that in my garden! We wanted real skills – engineering, maintenance, production. Those are the skills we are referring to. So the department failed. When the twelve months came to an end the workers said “no, we are not going anywhere, we don’t have those skills you promised”. The DID continued to fail us for six years.

From August 2018 workers said they would take the department to court. Then they listened. They said they would take us to UJ [the University of Johannesburg] to develop our skills. But the first workers to go to UJ – some from as far as Vaal or Tshwane – were told they must come to Joburg with their own transport money. That was impossible. These people are being paid a stipend of R2,000 per month. They must feed their families from that stipend. But we wanted the skills. So we said, ok, let that first group of people go whilst we engage the department on this issue. We succeeded in getting transport allowances.

But the disappointment continued. We found the people running the training were wearing Bosasa emblems [the corrupt company that has been exposed at the Zondo Commission]. This raised questions for us. Why is an institute of UJ’s stature doing business with Bosasa which was the talk of the town by then?

The course lasted only three weeks. After these three weeks they tell you that you are a plumber. We said that is impossible. How can someone be developed to be a plumber after only three weeks? This thing is a fake. The certificates looked like they just took a piece of paper and laminated making it shiny, and said “this is a certificate”. We rejected that. As we speak now, that training has been halted. We are saying to the department: “give us real training. We fought the previous [apartheid] regime over these things and you are not exempt from that. We will fight you as well.”

Q. What are the workers demanding?

A. They are demanding permanent employment. Either the department gives us proper training and finds us real jobs or they are stuck with us – but we refuse to be stuck with just the same stipend. Remuneration of workers should be in line with living costs.

We understand that the DID cannot hire every one of the 5,400 workers themselves. But you find EPWP workers at schools doing administration, cleaning the school yards. You find them under the Department of Health for example, doing maintenance and administration work, and even filling higher positions. This tells us there is a need for the workers. So why don’t the departments take them on a permanent basis. Whoever is using the EPWP workers must take the responsibility for hiring them – this is the workers’ demand.

Q. How are the workers organised?

A. When we started under EPWP we were told we cannot be organised in trade unions because we are not workers, we are only “beneficiaries”. But when we felt the heat from how we were being treated we said “no, no, there is no such thing that we cannot belong to a trade union”. But it is our understanding that it is not only under a trade union that workers can stand-up and fight for their rights. A trade union is not something that comes from university. It is only the ideas of the workers and their struggles – when they come together they form what you call a union. We can call it anything as long as what we are talking about is the unity of the working class itself.

So we started to organise. We involved other workers through the #OutsourcingMustFall movement – for example the outsourced PRASA workers, who are employed by a middleman who chows the money and gives the bones to the workers.

When the administration changed in Joburg [out of the 2016 local elections] the struggle was very hot. The new [DA/EFF] administration said we will insource starting with the security guards. Now, there is a danger when something like this happens – a concession – that workers start to relax as if the struggle has ended. But only 1,400 workers were absorbed. In PRASA and the provincial departments things didn’t change. But the unity that was prevailing vanished and every group of workers started to organise itself separately.

But the EPWP workers will never leave the struggle. They don’t need to be told, they experience the struggle, and that experience tells them that they need to do something. So the EPWP workers never left, only their spirits went down. But the pressure of their situation pushed them to stay organised. There is a committee of 25 engaging with the Province, with representation from each area of Gauteng.

Q. We understand the Saftu trade union federation supports #OMF. Do workers feel they get enough support?

A. A lot of workers thought that the creation of Saftu would end the divisions amongst workers. They had a lot of faith in Saftu and were part and parcel of its formation. At first #OMF was given a desk at Saftu but unfortunately some of the leaders of #OMF were swallowed leaving the movement on the ground crumbling.

Workers have engaged with the GS [Vavi] and have held meetings there at their offices. But they find that Saftu also regards them as “just some people” not as workers as such. We went there once and it was said “we need to do something about these people”. EPWP workers were not expecting that. They were expecting Saftu to say “here are the workers”. Saftu was formed acknowledging there are too many unorganised workers. By breaking free from Cosatu they were creating the space to go and organise the unorganised. And who are the unorganized by the way? The EPWP workers!

Q. Will workers take action before 31 March?

A. Yes, very much. Action may only be one meeting away. We are engaging the management on 1 November. Currently the department are telling us they don’t have permanent employment but they do have a “strategic exit plan” for us. What does that mean? It tells us that they want to get rid of us. That is our understanding of English. And “strategic” means they want to play around. They produced a document saying they will categorise all workers by age groups. We will have to see what they are offering.

We believe in unity in the working class. Yes, Saftu must come on board to unite the workers. But maybe it is not enough to only have Saftu. So we are engaging with other organisations. We have a good relationship with the Marxist Workers Party, but also other trade unions, like Demawusa and Nupsaw. We have our eye on these organisations for assistance in the coming struggle.

We want to be organised with other workers to come up with our own political party because if we have power as the working class we don’t have to go and ask – we will implement how we want the country to be run and how we want our lives to be. A Working Class Summit was organised [by Saftu in 2018] to engage on the question of coming together for our own party. We want that process to continue.

WE SAY:

  • Unite all EPWP workers in a broad and democratic campaign involving workers from each and every programme and from each and every department. Link-up with outsourced workers in PRASA and elsewhere. Appeal for support from Saftu and other trade unions.
  • Organise and struggle for permanent jobs! EPWP workers to be absorbed as permanent employees by the departments where they work, e.g. workers in hospitals to be absorbed by the Dept. of Health; workers in schools to be absorbed by the Dept. of Education. Recognise length of service.
  • Scrap stipends! For wages and payslips! No exemptions to the R3,500 national minimum wage. All EPWP workers to be covered by the national minimum wage as a step toward a living wage of R12,500.
  • No Mickey Mouse training or certificates! For serious, accredited and recognised qualification certificates after skills training. Kick out Bosasa – bring in the TVETs. Transport or transport money to be provided; all training to be fully catered. Guaranteed jobs at the end of training. 
  • Decent pensions for workers at retirement age and for older workers! Pension amount to be calculated on national minimum wage, recognising length of service. Optional early retirement on the same terms for all workers aged 55-65.
  • Scrap the Ministerial Determination! Recognise EPWP ‘participants’ as workers. Fight for full trade union rights for EPWP workers! For full equality under the Labour Relations Act, Basic Conditions of Employment Act and other labour legislation. Campaign in the trade unions for the full recognition of EPWP workers’ democratic rights from day one of membership. Elect shop stewards among all EPWP workers.

Unite workers and trade unions around a socialist programme to end unemployment and poverty:

  • Workers’ economic planning to end unemployment! Demand the working week is reduced to 30 hours with no cuts in pay. Share out the work with the unemployed, organised through the democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives. Build a united mass campaign of workers, unemployed and the precariously employed (e.g. EPWP workers) to end unemployment!
  • Nationalise under democratic working class and community control the banks, the mines, the big commercial farms, the big factories and big businesses. A publicly owned and democratically planned socialist economy to meet the needs of all and not the profits of the capitalists.
  • Forge the fighting unity of the working class in a party of mass struggle. Build a socialist mass workers party to unite the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party to lead the transformation of society