Welfare workers exploited

Workers who care for and protect the most vulnerable people in society are themselves under threat.

“If I retire, how will my children survive?” asks Martha Dithebe, shrugging her shoulders.

Dithebe, 62, works as a house mother at A Re Ageng Nthabeleng shelter in Simunye Township in Randfontein, a small mining town west of Johannesburg. She earns R2 200 a month, an amount below the proposed minimum wage.

The shelter is managed by A Re Ageng Social Services, a non-profit organisation that helps care for victims of domestic violence and rape.

Dithebe told New Frame that her work involves taking care of 20 women and their children overnight. “I sleep with them, I make sure they take medication and when they seek urgent medical attention in the middle of the night, I ensure that they get it … I bathe them.” 

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19 September 2018: Housemother Martha Dithebe works at A Re Ageng Nthabeleng shelter. With social work being among the lowest paid professions in SA, it is unclear what the amendment of the Minimum Wage Bill will mean for these workers.

Mpule Thejane, the director of A Re Ageng, says: “Welfare work is a 24-hour job. When social workers and other people leave the shelter, a house mother must take care of the beneficiaries.”

According to Dithebe, surviving on a meagre wage as the sole breadwinner of a family of nine is not easy. “I have four children and five grandchildren who are attending school,” she says. At some point, the provincial Department of Social Development (responsible for paying subsidies) did not pay A Re Ageng for three months, with the result that their staff could not be paid.

“When wages were not paid, it was a very difficult period. My funeral policy lapsed. My son, who was studying law, had to drop out … because there was no money … and we are still struggling, kunzima kakhulu… even today I can’t take him back to university,” says Dithebe.

According to Lisa Vetten, a research fellow at the Wits City Institute, “welfare work requires patience and the utmost care”. 

Mpule Thejane concurs. “As a victim of abuse or a runaway wife with children, you need care because where you came from, you did not receive it. How are you meant to counsel a person when you yourself are traumatised?” she asks.

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19 September 2018: Mpule Thejane, the founder of A Re Ageng Social Services.

A large, mainly female, workforce

There is a sizeable workforce in the non-profit social welfare services sector who, like Dithebe, earn way below the proposed minimum wage. According to Shukumisa, a coalition of more than  60 organisations across South Africa working against sexual violence, there are approximately 210 853 welfare workers, 69% of whom are women.

The Minimum Wage Bill does not say much about workers in the non-profit social welfare services sector. There is no certainty as to what hourly rate non-profit welfare workers are likely to earn. “Because they are not recognised in legislation, they fall under R20 an hour … so they will have to apply to the labour department for exemption,” says Vetten.

Vetten’s sentiment is confirmed by the labour department spokesperson, Teboho Thejane, who says employers, including those in non-profit social welfare services, will have to show evidence of their inability to pay the minimum wage and apply for exemption.

In the interim, Isaac Thembe, 43, a full-time employee responsible for maintenance at the same shelter as Dithebe, and thousands of other workers will ask themselves what will happen to them. Thembe, a father of three, earns R1 500 a month. He walks kilometres to and from work every day to save money.

“What the labour department may do is consider some of them in terms of the expanded public works programme. But this does not solve the problem, the exemption will be at the worse and lowest paid workers’ rate.” 

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19 September 2018: Isaac Thembe, caretaker at A Re Ageng Nthabeleng shelter.

Dependence on donor funding and subsidies

Shukumisa, along with other non-profit organisations, told a select committee on economic and business development that the non-profit social welfare sector is struggling because of its dependence on donor funding and subsidies.

However, they also argued that subsidies have remained stagnant and not in keeping with inflation. This, according to Shukumisa, partially accounts for the low wages. 

For example, post subsidies are at their lowest, with qualified social workers being paid below the market rate. Anna Chivavaya, a qualified psychologist with a masters degree, earns R8 500 a month, and is classified as an auxiliary social worker. 

While the state implements the 2016 recommendations of the National Minimum Wage Panel, non-profit organisations in the social welfare sector petitioned Parliament to exempt them temporarily from paying minimum wages, saying there should be an expert panel looking into the challenges of funding within the sector.

Vetten says if non-profits have to pay a minimum wage of R20 an hour, they will be forced to close shop, leaving the vulnerable people who they serve to fend for themselves in hostile conditions.

According to her, National Treasury and the social development department need to devise a plan to fund the sector while ensuring that no jobs are cut.

A Re Ageng director Mpule Thejane told New Frame that non-profit social welfare workers have been neglected because they are not unionised.  “You pay a driver, the so-called handyman, R1 500 a month. A family man with children. And you say you are fighting unemployment? It’s abuse at its best,” she says.

“That’s why I have decided to start a union that will fight for a living wage for non-profit welfare workers.”

Vetten agrees, saying: “If you read the preamble/introduction to the Minimum Wage Bill, it says ‘its purpose and objective is to improve the conditions of the worst paid workers’. It has not done that for this category, it has left them where they are, perhaps in the worst position.”

The department of social development had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

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