Workers at the mercy of bosses and the government

Some employees received their full salaries during lockdown whereas others got no pay. Is the ability to survive during a crisis dependent on having a sympathetic boss and state?

Portia Mamase, 48, and Johanna Warries, 58, have a lot in common. Both women have spent their working lives in the Western Cape’s clothing sector, the hub of South Africa’s often-troubled textile industry.

Covid-19 has disrupted their working and personal lives, with both women being furloughed during the lockdown. But that is where their similarities end.

Mamase is an admin clerk for Prestige Clothing in Maitland, a company that supplies the Foschini Group. Her company, she says, continued to pay employees and interns their full pay while they were at home.

She is aware of how fortunate she is compared to other workers and friends who have been retrenched or are still waiting for their employers to open their businesses again. 

“Praise God for our boss … The day before lockdown started he said we must stay at home because nobody knew what was going to happen, so we could even do our grocery shopping. He told us he doesn’t want us to stay at home stranded. We even got food parcels and blankets,” she says.

Mamase was away from work for only a month. Prestige, adapting early to the realities and demands of the pandemic, started producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers. 

“We were making PPE for fellow South Africans. Our [slogan] at work is, ‘You protect me, I protect you’,” she says proudly. 

The company has been cognisant of the psychological effect of the lockdown and virus. “We have a 24-hour helpline for all of us for counselling. There is also financial advice … We can even ask for help for our families with counselling.” 

Warries’ experience of the pandemic could not be more different. Separated by only a few kilometres in Cape Town, the two workers’ employers and their approach to the crisis are leagues apart. 

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Warries is a training operator at Romatex Home Textiles in Elsies River, a highly mechanised company that produces duvets, pillows and other bed linen. It also operates in Durban.

During the lockdown, Warries was on the brink of starvation and feared losing her home. The company did not pay her during the period she was temporarily laid off and, like thousands of other workers, she had to wait for her first Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) payout. It took two months for her to receive money from the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (TERS). 

“Two days before the lockdown started, we were all excited thinking it feels like a holiday. But afterwards, I started worrying about how I am going to pay my rent. Luckily my landlord understood,” she says.

“I hate ironing so much. But for food I did washing and ironing … I also got tins … and made pot plants, which I sold for R25 each. I would sell one or two a day sometimes.”

She says her anxiety has often been debilitating, especially because she is asthmatic. “I live in Wellington. Trucks were arriving from the farms in the area with no one wearing masks. I had to go to the shops early in the morning so there were less people. I had anxiety attacks because people were not practising social distancing. I was very worried and scared about being infected.”

Half of Romatex Home Textiles’ employees returned when the country moved to lockdown level four, but Warries was allowed to return to work only at the beginning of October because of her asthma. She is now back on a full salary. 

16 November 2020: Portia Mamase, who works at Prestige Clothing in Maitland, Cape Town, says the company paid employees their full salaries during the lockdown and provided a 24-hour hotline for psychological counselling.

Low morale 

Like Mamase, Warries is a member of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu). While she was off, she helped organise strikes in the hospitality industry, which has been decimated by the lockdown.

Both women are looking to the state and its much-vaunted set of relief packages to help workers and companies survive the crisis. But beyond economic survival, they are also concerned about the personal effect on their everyday lives.

“Companies are still retrenching. A friend of mine in the Eastern Cape last got her wages in March and is still at home. This thing makes people feel down. I am from the Eastern Cape, and there have been many deaths there. I’m now worried that there will be another lockdown and I won’t be able to go home for the holidays,” says Mamase.

“What I want from the government and the Cabinet is that they must stop being so corrupt. They are rich already, but they are stealing from the poor. Instead they should be helping to make internships and jobs for young people.”

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Warries agrees that graft is rampant.

“Corruption must be dealt with. But what I also want is for the government to be more involved in communities. They must help the neighbourhood watch and upgrade [communal] facilities to keep our children off the streets,” she says.

Her other plea is for her company to recognise what its employees have had to endure since March. “You see the orders [for products] coming [in] and you think, ‘Yoh!’ If only they could give us a token of appreciation. Even if it’s just a cake. Morale is very low.”

The fear and sense of hopelessness of workers like Mamase and Warries will not go away soon. The pandemic is far from over, and many companies remain in danger of shutting down. 

Massive job losses

What the government is proposing in its relief packages falls woefully short of what is needed to address the crisis, labour unions say.

Proposals from government’s economic reconstruction and recovery programme include creating 800 000 work opportunities and unlocking more than R1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next four years. But it has been criticised for being scant on detail.

Unions and federations are also concerned that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s October budget policy statement is not comprehensive on jobs and bolstering the economy. “We were hoping that the minister [would] give us more details on the implementation of the economic recovery plan … We wanted to hear more about time frames, resources allocated, the impact upon jobs and growth, etc,” wrote Sizwe Pamla, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) national spokesperson.

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While government has bought some time with the October statement, another catastrophe for workers is looming. Despite the president initially announcing that TERS would remain in place during the national state of disaster, applications was extended for only a month – from 15 September to 15 October – despite the government extending the state of disaster to 15 December.

Unions are outraged, insisting the scheme that has so far paid out about R50 billion has cash, despite some UIF reserves being used to fund part of the state’s R500 billion fiscal relief package.  

“It is far cheaper to pay a few months’ TERS and save millions of jobs and prevent companies from closing than to allow them to collapse,” says Pamla. “Not only does UIF avoid having to pay 12-month retrenchment benefits, but this keeps those workers and companies afloat, and they can then continue to pay taxes, pay their UIF contributions and contribute towards the economy’s revival.” 

The relief scheme has been critical for workers. The lockdowns in the second quarter of the year resulted in 2.2 million people losing their jobs. This worsened in the third quarter, according to Statistics South Africa’s latest quarterly labour force survey.

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Using the expanded definition, unemployment increased by 1.1 percentage points to 43.1%, the worst ever in South Africa. Cosatu, which historically includes discouraged work seekers in its count, puts the figure at 54%. “This continues to validate our position that the task of fundamental transformation of our economy, the creation of decent work and the provision of basic services to the majority of our people, cannot be left to the market forces,” Pamla says.

In an analysis by the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, the Eastern Cape has the highest unemployment rate. Most third-quarter job losses were in trade (400 000), manufacturing (300 000), community and social services (298 000), and construction (259 000).

Despite their hardships, Mamase and Warries, who are both still employed, are among the lucky ones – for now. 

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