EPWP: temporary work, permanent casuals

The Expanded Public Works Programme offers relief to poverty-stricken families, but it also exploits workers by not providing benefits or job security.

On 9 March 2020, Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) workers from Tshwane and Johannesburg staged a sit-in at the Department of Infrastructure Development demanding a moratorium on contract terminations, permanent employment for all EPWP workers and a minimum wage of R12 500.

National organiser for the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) Lebohang Phanyeko said that it was legitimate for workers to expect permanent contracts after six years of employment under repeated contract extensions.

The protest action, which has since been suspended, came about after some 5 000 workers were dismissed by text message on 6 March without warning.

While the plight of some casual workers improved in 2015 with the introduction of section 198 of the amended Labour Relations Act, many did not reap the benefits, especially seasonal workers and those in the public works programme.

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The amendment stated that certain workers could only be given temporary contracts for a maximum of three months after which they had to be offered permanent employment. Employers got around this by terminating contracts before the end of the three-month cut-off and then reissuing fresh three-month contracts.

The EPWP is a labour-intensive national initiative launched in 2003 by the Department of Public Works, and its conditions are set out by the labour department. It is aimed at providing temporary poverty relief. The programme does not make provision for permanent work, but rather aims at providing temporary work contracts to unemployed people who want to build skills, enter the formal job market and improve their future prospects.

The current minimum wage for EPWP workers is at R11 per hour, meaning cheap and easy access to a labour force that doesn’t have job certainty or security as contracts are sporadically renewed. This has allowed for municipalities to avoid the responsibilities of an employer under the Labour Relations Act.

Creating permanent casuals

The programme has been criticised for turning workers into permanent casuals. Without formal representation, workers’ grievances were ignored for years. They receive less pay for the same amount of work done by permanent workers and have often felt exploited by being offered only short-term contracts. This has fostered a work environment condoning cheap labour and unfair dismissals.

In February, about 200 dismissed Ekurhuleni municipal workers were granted R24 000 compensation each – equal to 12 months’ remuneration – following a dispute with the City of Ekurhuleni and others over permanent employment and unfair dismissals dating back five years.

Acting Judge Aadil Patel of the Labour Court reviewed and substituted a previous order from the South African Labour Bargaining Council (SALBC) granting them only R6 000. Other grounds for review, including being reinstated, were dismissed.

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For Lesiba Mailula, 32, working for the EPWP was better than staying at home. It provided a possible avenue to a better life, even though it put only R2 000 a month in his pocket. He was dismissed in 2016.

Mailula, who has a daughter, later finally found some work, but he was dismissed in December 2019 after three months because he was told that, according to the system at the labour department, he was permanently employed elsewhere.

“We are known to be working, but we are not earning anything … It shows that I am earning a salary that shows I can afford a good life,” he says.

When he inquired at the municipality, he was told that the contract was terminated. Mailula does not know who to approach next.

“I can’t afford. I am trying by getting piece jobs. I am a garden boy sometimes. I clean because I already know what they are going to say when I go and look for a job at a company. So I want to be a human, too, to have a job and to raise my family,” he says.

Mailula’s partner left him because of his erratic financial situation.

“My demand is that we get jobs so that life can improve because as you see us now, we are here because of loans from loan sharks to get to court, and we have no food,” he says.

Conflict of interest

Laurence Madonsela, 34, one of Ekurhuleni’s EPWP workers, says they took the case to the Labour Court because they had run out of options and, although they welcomed the outcome, they want to take the case forward to the Constitutional Court.

“We want to go back to work as permanent workers, not temporary, as per the law, which says we must be employed after three months of employment,” he says.

A handful of workers were hired under a fixed contract as plumbers, general workers and cleaners over two employment periods commencing on 3 March 2014. They worked under a work creation programme called the Lungile Mtshali Development Plan Project.

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Having been signed in February 2014, the contracts started before the Labour Amendment Act, which came into effect in January 2015.

In May 2018, the bargaining council’s commissioner Timothy Boyce ruled that the workers were unfairly dismissed by the municipality and, although they were not entitled to get their jobs back, the workers should have been made permanent.

Patel agreed with Boyce, saying a reasonable commissioner would have arrived at the same conclusion because there was no intention by the municipality to hire the workers permanently, as there was not much work that needed doing.

Ekurhuleni spokesperson Themba Gadebe has previously told New Frame the same about the programme, stressing that it was a work creation project, not a job creation initiative.

Esther Morake, 35, was a general worker under the Lungile Mtshali project. She was dismissed on 31 August 2016 and has not found work since. She has been fighting her unfair dismissal. She used to earn R2 000 with a deduction of R20 for the unemployment insurance fund but for some reason her payslip showed her earnings to be R4 500 instead of R1 980.

Morake has two children to support.

“I am struggling too much … Some of us even go look for jobs, and we are asked what we are doing there because apparently the system shows that you are a permanent employee somewhere,” she says.

False promises

The same applies for social grants, for which she cannot apply. Apparently, the municipality made a lot of promises and false commitments, including training, that never materialised.

“From that contract, we were told we would be upskilled … not a single person here can claim that they got a certificate,” Morake says. “They could not deliver the training they had promised to provide … What is sad, we would do the work of the municipality… workers were still cleaning the streets, [cleaning] storm water drainages, transforming rubbish dumps into parks and cleaning parks.”

She says they faced a number of risks while working in rubbish dumps and once found the body of a baby in a pillowcase.

“Our safety is not all right. We realised that we keep cleaning these dumping areas, but they keep returning to the same state, so we decided to create mini-parks, and they saw that this strategy was working, so they started sidelining us and building parks themselves,” she says.

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Their contracts were constantly renewed, and the workers kept anticipating training and possibly permanent work. Madonsela thought hard work might win the workers permanent contracts.

“We worked, we really worked … The year went ahead without training, we are fast tracking service delivery for the municipality, so when [it] extended [our contracts] for this training, we are still working,” Madonsela says. “During this time we are working with permanent workers … who get benefits … and we are doing the very same job, but we are underpaid in the name of learnership with no benefits.”.

The workers did not qualify for sick or maternity leave, and they did not get medical aid benefits. Madonsela feels they should have been made permanent from as early as April 2015.

Barrington Makhamba, 35, also from the Lungile Mtshali project, started working for the municipality on 3 March 2014 under a one-year contract. He claims they were sidelined and not paid for taking the legal route against the City.

Makhamba wants to be reinstated and fairly compensated “because from the start we were earning a low amount and working hand-in-hand with permanent workers who made a lot of money”. He wants the compensation to be backdated to April 2015.

Owning companies they don’t know about

The workers allege they were encouraged to register cooperatives and told that when they started growing, contracts would be given to companies formed under the Lungile Mtshali project, but nothing came of it.

Sibusiso Mabuza from Vosloorus has a company opened in his name, but he does not know who operates it. He has not been employed since 2015.

“We found that some of the companies we had written down exist, and they are currently operating … I found out from someone in my group who came back and told us that she could not qualify for a loan because she is apparently a manager in the company we had registered,” he says.

Mabuza says they were called into a hall and divided into groups and asked what they wanted to do.

“Their first mistake was hiring us to run companies when we had never run companies,” he says. “They told us what they would teach us, which was sowing, bricklaying, recycling and how to write a CV. In that group, we filled out a form – about 13 of us – and chose what we wanted. We were told that the companies would be registered, we would get CKs [original company documents] and a start.”

But this never happened.

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“Those people played with us and they don’t want to talk with us, there is nothing they are saying, they always say bad things about us, so we know they are playing with us because they are hiding behind the power of the municipality,” says Mabuza.

Makhamba says workers found out by complete chance that a number of companies were registered and no one knows who is operating them and under which names.

Makhamba was taught how to write a CV and received some agricultural and entrepreneurship training, following which a certificate was supposed to be issued by the Gauteng Enterprise Propeller.

“We never got those certificates. We never got our company registrations but we know that some of them are up and running but … they don’t have a clue that those companies are registered and working,” he says.

Makhamba says he has been blacklisted from almost every available work including scholar patrolling at a school, and this is the same for other EPWP workers. He says an age limit has also been imposed, restricting and discriminating against those above a particular age.

“We were accepted while we were still within the age range, but now we are obviously not able to apply. That sidelines us and municipality has treated us as their enemy. No matter how long it takes, we will fight until we win,” he says.

Numbers game

In June 2019, the South African Cities Network released a report into the state of the EPWP in the nine participating cities for the 2017/2018 period. The report highlighted that Phase 3 of the programme had created over 3 million work opportunities over five years.

Although the implementation of the programme has created work, meeting targets does not translate into meaningful outcomes. It also has not led to full-time labour absorption of workers who have often been unfairly dismissed, or have had short-term contracts continuously renewed while they remain temporary workers.

As experienced by workers, the report also notes that projects are hard to integrate with the training programmes because minimal education is required for cleaning, while departments tasked with implementing the training found it time consuming.

A nationwide problem

The plight of the EPWP workers in Ekurhuleni is not unique. Allegations of corruption have now become a ubiquitous feature of the work programmes across the country. Councillors have been arrested on allegations of EPWP-linked tender fraud while those meant to benefit suffer instead.

The eThekwini municipality requested additional funding of R166 million to sustain the programme because anticipated expenditure was sitting at R245 million due to the current number of participants. The municipality has also extended the programme until the end of June.

The month-to-month contracts of 4 806 workers ended in November last year. Grant funding of over R78 million from the Department of Public Works was depleted, prompting unions and opposition parties to call for political leadership to be held accountable before requesting further funding.

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According to a report by the municipality, “the grant funding does not suffice to sustain the projects as it gets depleted within four months and the City is expected to fund the deficit”.

A physical verification process is also underway after it was found that payments were made to EPWP workers who were listed as deceased persons on the national populations register, while some beneficiaries were found to be employed in government departments.

In the 2017/2018 report, the work programmes were found to be prone to political manipulation, often being used by politicians as a form of “rent-seeking”. The report stated that politicians focused on numbers more than impact, highlighting that the focus should be on whether beneficiaries leave equipped with the skills required to pursue future employment. Political affiliation extended certain privileges to some workers and was used for party gains and internal campaigning.

A collaborative approach

Last year, chief director of the EPWP infrastructure sector Ignatius Ariyo commended eThekwini for the longer duration of work opportunities, resulting in better poverty alleviation.

“It’s not just about numbers, but how long the work opportunities are and what impact we are having,” he said. The report also showed that eThekwini paid a daily wage rate averaging a minimum of R200.

Newly elected mayor Mxolisi Kaunda appealed to councillors to ensure that the lives of the poor were elevated, and called for clean governance. The matter will be discussed at council.

At the time, Ariyo said public works programmes had the potential to contribute to addressing unemployment but needed a collaborative, innovative approach. A draft policy was in the works at the end of October last year to ensure gaps in implementation were filled.

Discontent contract workers

In other parts of the country, the programme has been riddled with corruption, protests and discontent from workers.

In Port Elizabeth, workers earning R100 a day to clean up Motherwell rubbish dumps blocked roads after not being paid for three months.

Similarly, in Uitenhage and Motherwell last year, about 100 EPWP workers employed to clean public spaces, drains and do weeding along roads demanded permanent jobs and proper salaries outside the Department of Roads and Transport in Port Elizabeth. They were earning R93 a day, and only allocated two days work a week, earning them a wage of R744 a month.

They worked as “casuals” for up to 12 years in a government-funded programme run by the transport department in the Eastern Cape. Workers were allegedly only provided with boots of one size only and sometimes did not have the requisite tools to do their work. The workers are not extended benefits such as maternity or sick leave.

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On 10 March, the workers told New Frame that their manager had informed them that none of their contracts would be renewed after their expiry on 18 March allegedly because they “had toyi-toyied” and approached the media about their problems.

In Port Elizabeth, the South African Municipal Workers Union and the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union complained that a dozen workers from the EPWP who were tasked to do the work of employees in the Assistance to the Poor (ATTP) programme were making R5 000 as contract workers, instead of the R19 000 the ATTP employees earned. EPWP workers had to verify ownership for residents who might qualify for rebates on municipal services like water and electricity.

Two years ago, about 100 EPWP workers, MyCiTi bus drivers – who were on strike at the time – and union members marched to the Cape Town civic centre to deliver a memorandum demanding insourcing and permanent jobs for contract workers.

In February, over 1 000 EPWP workers from different parts of Gauteng marched to the Union Buildings and held an all-night vigil for the living and working conditions of EPWP, community healthcare and childhood development workers. They stated that it was unfair of the Tshwane metro to give contracts stipulating that workers may not join unions and lead demonstrations. They demanded that councillors be stripped of the power of appointing and influencing the dismissal of colleagues.

The National Union of Public Workers and Allied Workers also demanded that workers be integrated and paid a minimum wage of R12 500 a month.

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In Greytown, more than 150 municipal workers had their contracts terminated in December for what they alleged to be politically motivated reasons. They were general workers for five years and only found out last year at the bargaining council that they were EPWP workers subject to short-term contracts.

The 152 workers claim that the Umvoti municipality terminated their contracts after they rallied behind a member of a particular political party, while the municipality claims terminations were guided by the rules of the EPWP, which mandates only 12 months of employment. The argument is that the mandate allows for work opportunities to rotate, extending relief to other poverty-stricken homes.

In February, 1 596 EPWP workers in Robertville, contracted to work over the 2019 festive season by waste management entity Pikitup, were paid following protests and outrage over non-payment over two months. They were hired to help ease the backlog Pikitup was facing.

The South African Cities Network is due to release the 2018/2019 report, while a process by the national government is underway to improve and review the programme for its five-year phase which began in April 2019 and will last until March 2024.

Correction, 18 March 2020: This article previously stated that Acting Judge Chiman Patel of the Labour Court reviewed and substituted a previous order from the SALBC granting workers only R6 000.

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