LACK of legal documentation and reluctance to be unionised is the biggest problem that most migrant workers from Zimbabwe and other countries face, thus exposing them to all sorts and forms of exploitation in the workplace in SA.
This makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and ill treatment compared to their local counterparts, who can seek recourse from unions.
Employers on the other hand also take advantage of this, preferring to employ these migrant workers, who often are exploitated because they need the money and/ or are afraid of deportation because their illegal status.
The most affected sectors are in the domestic, agriculture, clothing and textile, construction, transport (truck drivers) and education sector (especially private schools where they are being exploited the most.)
This has made a large number of migrant worker work under slave or semi slave like conditions because they are desperate for work.
Areas outside Gauteng provinces are the worst, because there are less opportunities and the few available opportunities have been taken up by locals.
Eg in Limpopo in Lepahlale, about 200 Zimbabweans were being underpaid, when they realized that they were being underpaid, when they protested and they were unfairly dismissed, harassed and beaten up and left homeless with no food. Fortunately MIWUSA and other organisations intervened and managed to resolve the problem, but it took a long time.
Another factor that is working against migrant workers in particular is the shrinking economy and when times are tough companies will also want to cut costs by employing people who will not demand a lot, workers they won’t pay UIF, pension etc and the only people who can accept that are migrants, especially the illegal ones.
So you find companies employing lots of non SA at the expense of the locals again creating resentment from the locals in that community. As they will not only have jobs but enjoy a higher standard of living.
So we urge companies to follow the proper Labour laws and employ the stipulated quota of non SA because definitely companies that hire only Zimbabweans or Malawians etc are only after exploiting them. There should be a balance.
Migrant workers especially those who are illegally in the country are not unionized not because they they don’t want it to be known that they are non South African citizens and there are also language and cultural barriers.
This is usually not helped by the fact that there is lack of trust and a feeling that should there be a dispute between a local and a non SA citizen there is a general perception that the local will be favoured in the dispute.
Also the conventional unions are reluctant to help undocumented workers thus there is fear to approach them for help (that is why MIWUSA was formed NOT that we encourage illegal migration) but we want non citizens to be adequately represented in labour disputes.
However it is important for Zimbabwean workers to know that whether they are legally in the country or not they all unions in SA can and should help them.
That’s why we as Miwusa also try and help try people not only involved in labour disputes but even those without documentation at the same time encouraging Zimbabwean migrant workers including those illegally here to join NUMSA etc .
MIWUSA also works with the local unions, which are more established and strongly encourages workers to be unionized, illegal or otherwise.
Though all workers despite their legal status can also go to CCMA, or join a union, most migrant don’t also know what it really does so you find that some go there to report cases of assault, yet that is actually a police case and not for the CCMA to handle.
Outright Xenophobia is especially prevalent in the workplace because migrant workers are easily identifiable as opposed to when eg they are just walking in the street because the workplace is more secluded where employers even beat up their employees because no one can see them, under pay them or refuse outright to pay them at all.
Mandla Masuku is General Secretary of the Migrants Union of South Africa/
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