Many people who work in and around Fordsburg come from all parts of the world. It is not strange to hear cleaners, waitresses, cooks, shop assistants etc. saying they come from countries like India, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Malawi. But, a majority of those employed there live just above the poverty line and struggle to survive each day.
There is always a buzz on the streets of Fordsburg, Johannesburg, but the buzz is tricky to decipher for an outsider. The cars drive slowly and the residents walk with a quick urgency.
On the other hand, there are the almost invisible service workers who seem to move in the background of a scene they are not meant to occupy. This means that there are loud and quiet laughs in every corner, some comfortable while others are uneasy.
The area is mainly made up of restaurants, grocery stores, factories, textile and clothing shops that employ many foreign nationals living around Fordsburg, Mayfair and the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD).
Fadzai Gonda and Sazini Mpala are two examples of those workers. They, like many other workers in Fordsburg, are only a small fraction of a bigger picture concerning worker conditions in Fordsburg, and South Africa. The puzzle in Fordsburg is big and complicated. The history of the place is still intricately intertwined with our present.
One of the busiest streets in Fordsburg is Mint Road. Mannequins with brightly coloured Muslim clothing and restaurant signs showing hot plates of food fill the pavements.
A couple of blocks down from Mint Road there is a bakery and pastry shop. At the front of the store, on either side of the door, there are two gas stoves, one with bubbling oil and the other with assorted desserts and pastries.
Long hours, long days
Mpala, who works in the bakery shop, is from Zimbabwe and has been living in South Africa for over 10 years. Standing behind one of the gas stoves, she casually puts raw samoosa dough into the boiling oil. She is sweating slightly and her torn shoes are testament to her long hours of standing.
“I start work at 8am and finish at 7pm, six days a week. I only rest on Tuesdays,” says Mpala. While most people would cringe at the notion of only resting one day a week, she says she is used to it; after all, she has been doing it for almost nine years.
When Mpala arrives in the morning she cleans and sweeps the store. She then starts frying and preparing the pastries and sweets. From the moment she starts preparing the food from her stall at around 8.30 or 9am, customers start buying and she has to serve them. Mpala says she spends most of her days on her feet, only sitting down for short intervals.
“You know, young kids the age of my children come here and talk in a bad language to us, and we can’t do anything about it,” she says.
Mpala is 42 years old and has four children, aged three, seven, 14 and 18, who all live in Zimbabwe with her mother-in-law. “I feel heartbroken every time I have to leave my children behind, but I have no choice,” says Mpala.
She and her husband rent a room in a three-bedroom flat in Bertrams, Johannesburg, with two other families.
The flat she stays in is one of the half-renovated flats typical of the Johannesburg CBD, painted with bright greens and reds on the outside, but with rusted plumbing and cracked walls covered in paint on the inside.
The building next to hers is covered in soot, it was probably bright and white in its heyday. The streets are much cleaner and quieter than the rest of the CBD though.
A double bed, with a brown headboard, sits on one side of their bedroom, which also functions as a lounge. On the other side sits a chest of drawers with a black 54cm television on top. Behind the bedroom door is a calendar with the 25th of December circled.
The 25th is circled because she is counting down the days till she can go home to see her children. “I always go home on Christmas. Even though I don’t have much to give my kids, I always try my best to bring them some stuff. You know, clothes and sweet things,” she smiles.
Gonda, who is exactly 10 years younger than Mpala, faces the same dilemma each year. She says she tries to go home every year but sometimes feels embarrassed because she can’t give a lot to her ailing mother and her two daughters.
She says life in South Africa has been difficult. “Where I work now, I only get paid R450 per week. We get paid in cash so the money just finishes in your hands, just like that,” says Gonda.
Gonda is loud when she speaks and has a charismatic character. She laughs frequently, even laughing at herself sometimes. She smiles even when she tells the story of the degrading way they get searched every night when they leave work.
“When the shop is closed for the day, we all go to the back, strip to our underwear and get searched by a Muslim lady who works at the store.”
When asked how she feels about this, she says: “I absolutely hate it. It means that they really don’t trust us.”
Gonda lives in Mayfair with her boyfriend and has been in South Africa since 2009. “After 2008 I decided to leave my home country [Zimbabwe],” she says, referring to the violence that erupted in Zimbabwe after the 2008 elections.
The economy of the country fell dismally after that and many Zimbabweans left the country.
Although she has been working in South Africa for close to six years, Gonda will only be getting her official work permit in November. This means she cannot find a permanent job. She says the money she gets paid is so little that she was forced to find a second job, cleaning and washing clothes in a flat in Mayfair.
Work that is uncertain
In Fordsburg, shops of various sizes employ anything from one to 10 employees. While some shop owners choose to employ their siblings and family members, most of the others employ legal and illegal foreign nationals.
Most work around Fordsburg is what labour experts classify as precarious work.
Bandile Ngidi is a master’s student at Wits University and researcher for the National Minimum Wage Research Initiative. He is also one of the directors of Rethink Africa. Ngidi says: “Precarious work is work that is temporary, short term, they don’t have fixed contracts, it’s insecure and they have very poor working conditions.”
Ngidi refers to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) that is meant to, but not always does, protect some of the most vulnerable workers in the formal and informal economy.
“We have a lot of legislation that is meant to protect workers but what is missing is this funny concept called political will,” says Ngidi.
Fordsburg is historically a site of informal labour.
The Fordsburg and Mayfair areas formed part of the original Langlaagte farm where gold was first discovered in Johannesburg in the mid-19th century.
Fordsburg was named after Lewis P Ford, a private developer who, along with Julius Jeppe Senior, were the first developers to build around the gold-rich piece of land in 1888.
From the onset the area was designated for poor, working-class communities looking for work in the mining area. There was an area specially earmarked for Indians, coloureds, black and white people.
Those who specifically worked in the mines, both black and white men, chose to buy stalls in the Fordsburg area because it was close to the gold mines. The area soon became congested and racially diverse.
With an increasingly multi-cultural population, Fordsburg soon became a vibrant space for commercial shopping enterprises. Mint and Albertina Sisulu roads are still shopping hubs where many buy, work and play.
This legacy, of Fordsburg being a space for the poor and the working class, has continued, but in recent years the power dynamic has changed. Those who were historically employees are now employers.
What the law says
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act stipulates the law for acceptable working conditions for all South Africans in the formal and informal economy.
According to the Act, “an employer must give an employee who works continuously for more than five hours a meal interval of at least one continuous hour”.
It also stipulates: “An employer may not require or permit an employee to work more than 45 hours in any week and … eight hours in any day if the employee works on more than five days in a week.”
Gonda says this never happens at her workplace: “Our lunch break is 30 minutes and we are not allowed to go out. You have to eat inside the shop.”
Mpala shares these sentiments, saying that she has no formal lunch break: “I only eat when there are no customers. If the customers keep coming, I can stand the whole day without taking any breaks.”
‘Mina I can get fired any day, any time’
Ngidi says a huge portion of the South African economy is made up of individuals who work in the informal sector, earning wages that are barely enough to live a healthy lifestyle.
“The wages that many get, even after long strenuous hours of work, are hardly enough for a balanced diet.”
Speaking about the trend of low wages in most informal sectors, Ngidi says: “South Africa’s labour market is such that … the apartheid wage structure is roughly still intact but also we’ve got very high levels of poverty and inequality and a low social security system.”
He says: “What is driving our very low job growth is temporary work, casualisation.”
Ngidi says employers can sometimes get away with gross exploitation, especially of workers who are illegal or uneducated.
Within the labour sector, a broader discussion, spearheaded by trade unions, about a standard minimum wage has been going on for a number of years. Tied to these discussions are questions of what it means to live above the poverty line and how the huge inequality gap in South Africa can be combated using a minimum wage.
Ngidi cites some international countries as examples that can be used to chart a way forward for these discussions. He mentions countries like Germany, Australia, France and Brazil that have recently implemented a minimum wage system.
South Africa is one of 186 countries that are part of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which is a United Nations (UN) agency meant to combat worker exploitation and create a unified working environment the world over.
“Out of all the countries in the ILO, almost 90% of them have a minimum wage and South Africa is not one of those countries,” Ngidi says.
Ngidi says there are other elements and factors that are being considered in trying to figure out what the national minimum wage will be. These include the number of dependants an individual has.
“There is no answer to that question yet but … the local food poverty line is calculated by looking at how much it costs to buy a local diet that gives you 2200 calories.”
A diet of 2200 calories is estimated as enough energy and nutrition to sustain an adult per day.
Ngidi also says that one of the reasons exploitation is rampant in many informal industries is because workers are unable to organise themselves due to extremely long working hours that make it physically impossible for them to meet as a collective.
When asked whether she has ever considered joining a trade union or aligning herself with an organisation that protects worker rights, Mpala exclaims loudly in Ndebele, her home language: “Yhuuuuuuuuuu, do you want me to lose my job?
“If lababantu [these people] could see me talking to you now I would get fired. Mina, I can get fired any day, any time and nothing can happen,” Mpala says.
And that is the story of many workers in Fordsburg, and in South Africa. They walk on tiptoes hoping not to offend their only source of income.
Like Mpala’s worn-out shoes, they have no option but to carry on just another day.
FEATURED IMAGE: Fadzai Gonda poses outside her home in Mayfair. She has been working in Fordsburg for over a year and earns a wage that she says is not enough to support her family. Photo: Zimasa Mpemnyama
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