South Africa: Struggle of workers at ‘Expanded Public Works Programme’ continues

On 17 June workers marched in Johannesburg, South Africa, demanding permanent jobs and a living wage of R12,500 ($700). Over 200 braved the severe winter cold snap gripping the country and the continuing lockdown restricting movement and public gatherings. In commemoration of George Floyd in the United States and in solidarity with the anti-racist protests that have erupted worldwide in protest at his murder, workers ‘took the knee’ in solidarity.

On 31 March the ANC-run Gauteng Provincial government and its Department of Infrastructure Development (DID) terminated the contracts of 3,000 plus workers on their Expanded Public Works Programme. Gauteng is the economic hub of the country, containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Exploitation and corruption

A nationwide programme, the EPWP employs 900,000  plus, as a shadow public sector slave-labour force. It was originally promoted as a twelve-month training programme to “impart” skills and training to improve the employment opportunities of those taking part, in a country, which even before the Covid-19 pandemic, had an official conservative unemployment rate of 29%. At other times the ANC boasts of the EPWP’s role in so-called “poverty alleviation”.

The reality is different. The workers who marched this week were part of a 5,000-strong cohort brought into the DID in 2013 – seven years ago! In that time they received no serious training. Instead, they were loaned-out to other government departments and performed essential work. Workers were deployed in clinics and hospitals as data capturers, in schools, parks and libraries as maintenance workers and groundskeepers. Their orange overalls are a familiar sight along the side of roads and highways, where EPWP work-crews pick-up litter and repair barriers.

But EPWP workers are not regarded as workers, instead, they are variously referred to as “participants”, or even “volunteers”. This sleight of hand is used to exclude workers from the (limited) protections of the Labour Relations Act and other labour legislation. This includes excluding EPWP workers from the national minimum wage of R3,500 per month ($200). Instead, they are paid a “stipend” of just R2,000 ($115). In the townships, corrupt ANC councillors use the EPWP to bolster their patronage networks. They agree to find placements for the unemployed on the understanding that they will campaign for them door-to-door in elections. In collusion, ANC-affiliated trade unions have refused to organise EPWP workers, just as they refuse to organise outsourced and contract workers in the public sector.

There is enormous pressure on South Africa’s public finances due to its stagnant capitalist economy (which never recovered from the 2007-09 world economic crisis in which one million jobs were lost), massive looting of public money by corrupt politicians, and widespread tax-dodging by big business and multinationals. In March South Africa was downgraded to “junk” by the credit rating agency companies further tightening the screw. Trying to manage this situation, for years, an unofficial public sector recruitment freeze was in place. In February, the ANC government announced its intention to tear-up the three-year wage deal struck with public sector unions, refusing to pay the final year salary increase.

In these conditions, the EPWP programme is a valuable sticking plaster for the ruling class, used to try and mitigate the disastrous impact of its policies on public services. Workers understand this, referring to it as the Exploitative Public Works Programme.

Struggle

The Gauteng DID EPWP workers have a history of organising themselves. In previous years, protests have ensured that their annual contracts were “rolled-over”. But as time passed, and the value of their work in the public sector became more obvious, the expectation that they should be hired as permanent employees on equal pay and conditions to other public sector works grew into a demand.

Towards the end of 2019, as the end of that year’s contract approached, workers decided that enough was enough. After seven years, it was time to raise the stakes and demand permanent jobs. Organising as the Gauteng EPWP Workers Forum, months of tireless mobilising took place across Gauteng’s “five corridors” – Johannesburg, Pretoria, Ekurhuleni, West Rand and Sedibeng. Each corridor elects five representatives to the provincial Forum.

Watch a video of the mobilising campaign here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FMl75guLIA&t=56s

The Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) has played an important role in supporting the EPWP workers struggle. The Provincial Coordinator of the Forum, Executive Mukwevho, is a leading member of the MWP.

Central to the campaign’s strategy was trying to build a broader working-class alliance. The National Union of Public Sector and Allied Workers (Nupsaw) responded to the Forum’s call for solidarity. An affiliate of the Saftu trade union federation, they had rejected the ANC-aligned unions’ refusal to organise non-permanent workers. They had already made significant progress in recruiting Community Health Workers (CHWs) – another of the ANC’s slave-labour programmes, this time trying to substitute nurses and social workers. Nupsaw has won important concessions for CHWs, including wages rising to the level of the national minimum wage and workers being loaded onto the pay-roll system allowing them to receive payslips.

Agreeing to unite the campaigns, in February the EPWP Forum and Nupsaw led two days of protest in Pretoria, marching to different government departments and holding a night-vigil at Union Buildings (the seat of the presidency).

Watch a video of the Pretoria protests here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy5CNzBwjMk

But the DID dug its heels in and did not respond to the memorandums workers submitted. They were determined to defeat the workers. In the 2019 elections, a new ANC administration was elected that wanted to make its mark and secure its position. The rumours were that the administration wanted all the EPWP workers gone because they had been “infected with politics”! In other words, workers had organised and were refusing to accept their slavery.

On March 9 and 10, workers mobilised again and organised a sleep-over at the DID’s Johannesburg HQ. As a result of the massive disruption, the protest caused the management made a concession and agreed to negotiations on workers’ demands.

Pandemic and the way forward

But the Covid-19 pandemic came as a saviour to the DID and ANC Gauteng Provincial government. On 15 March, the State of Disaster was declared, and on 27 March (five days before the EPWP contracts were due to be terminated) the army was deployed on to the streets in one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

Despite the televised promises of ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa that no worker should lose their job as a result of the health crisis, and appeals to the private sector to retain jobs, politicians in his own party cynically used the crisis to push the remaining – and increasingly troublesome! – 3,000 plus EPWP workers out of the door. With workers locked down, management was safe from protests. This cruel move left the workers and their families in poverty. There are reports that ANC councillors have refused emergency food parcels to EPWP leaders and activists. Other workers say that they are being refused the emergency pandemic social grant (a pathetic $20 per month!) because they are still showing as ‘employed’ by the DID.

Despite the EPWP workers’ weakened position as a result of the pandemic and lockdown, and now being outside the workplace, they are determined to continue their campaign for permanent jobs. They have absolutely nothing to lose. The social collapse that is developing in South Africa makes struggle the only road out. In planning the protest that took place this week workers made it clear: they will starve if they sit at home, they would rather struggle on the streets, even if it means death from the coronavirus or becoming victims of state repression.

United struggle

Unemployment is going to be a central issue in the next period. The MWP has emphasised the importance of the EPWP workers remaining organised, even in unemployment. We have stressed the important role that the EPWP Forum can play in communities, galvanising and organising the unemployed youth, and the up to 1.79 million workers expected to lose their jobs as a result of the capitalist class’s (mis) management of the pandemic. It is crucial to link the unemployed to the trade union movement. A national march, led by the workers’ movement under the slogan: “Full-time jobs or full maintenance!” could have an important effect.

Such a campaign could demand that the ANC government’s planned “post-Covid reconstruction” infrastructure programme must not become a feeding-frenzy for the politically connected ‘tenderpreneurs’ and big business. It must be a programme that pandemic-proofs communities through mass decent house-building, water, sanitation, road and public transport provision; the upgrading and development of schools, clinics, day-care etc. This must be under the democratic control of communities with mass training of the youth and unemployed to provide them with the skills to undertake this work.

The new emergency pandemic social grant must be made permanent and increased at least to the level of the current national minimum wage. The ANC government plans to end this social grant in a few months. Communities should be mobilised and campaigns organised now to stop this.

The ANC government’s attack on public sector pay poses the need for a public sector general strike. This must unite all public sector workers irrespective of union or federation affiliation. A mass movement of the working class, uniting workers and unemployed, is the only way to stop the deepening of the social disaster that is otherwise posed in South Africa.

The Gauteng EPWP Forum also supports the MWP’s call to Saftu to reconvene the Working Class Summit to implement the resolution adopted at its first meeting in 2018, to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

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