A study on the perspectives of direct beneficiaries of EPWP project

In July 2015, EPWP workers in Orange Farm went on strike demanding better working conditions. Photo by Dibuseng Phaloane

Dr Mondli Hlatshwayo recounts some of the findings of a recently completed survey of Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) workers.

Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Formally introduced in 2003, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) can be traced back to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) implemented by South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC).

The RDP viewed the EPWP as “the key area where special measures to create jobs can link to building the economy and meeting basic needs … in redressing apartheid-created infrastructural disparities”. The EPWP thus had three functions: job creation, developing local infrastructure and the provision of basic services.

The Process

The findings presented in this summarised article are part of a wider research project on vulnerable workers, also referred to as ‘precarious workers’: those who earn low wages and have no security of employment, in five metropolitan and urban areas of South Africa.

Twenty interviews were conducted with EPWP workers in Buffalo City, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Vanderbijlpark and Mangaung. The data were then collated and analysed.

To make sure that the interviewees were able to discuss issues freely, they were given the assurance that their names would not be revealed. An interview schedule was used that required interviewees to reflect broadly on their biographical details, work histories, experiences of working in the EPWP, and their views and perspectives on EPWP work. This was the main research tool for collecting their testimonies.

Findings

Based on the interviews, it appeared that being a member of the ANC, participating in its political activities and in ward committees was rewarded with access to work opportunities in the form of employment in EPWP projects. However, not all EPWP workers ascribed their employment to political activism and membership of the ANC.

A single parent who has always worked as a precarious worker described how she was recruited into an EPWP project in Bloemfontein: “I was recruited by a ward committee member. We used to attend ANC meetings and were part of the ANC’s door-to-door campaigns. … The ANC has taught me a lot and it has helped me.”

These interviews reveal what can be regarded as localised cadre deployment in the context of EPWP work.

The deployment of cadres as a reward for loyalty to the ANC does not occur only in the upper echelons of the government and state entities, but is also practised when placing people in poorly paid positions in the EPWP. Unlike other forms of cadre deployment, it involves low wages and no employment benefits. The minimal income they earn is indicative of the context of high unemployment and poverty in their communities.

Wages are obviously crucial to EPWP workers, enabling them to purchase essentials such as food and electricity. The testimonies of the workers revealed two interesting trends.

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First, the EPWP workers appreciated the fact that they were earning an income from the state, which enabled them to start meeting livelihood challenges and support their households. In some households, EPWP wages helped to supplement other sources of income, including social grants and wages earned by other family members. The money the EPWP workers earned made a huge difference in the context of unemployment and generalised poverty.

Second, in some cases, workers felt strongly that the wages for EPWP work were much too low, as they had to deal with the rising cost of living.

An EPWP worker in Bloemfontein remarked: ‘We were told that we would work two days per week. We were earning R697 after UIF deductions per month. My sister is also an EPWP worker and we also receive a state grant. This has helped me a lot and we were able to build a room and renovate a house”.

Although the EPWP projects helped workers earn some income to support themselves and their families, the uncertainties of this form of employment were a source of concern. In some instances, projects were halted because of budgetary problems within local municipalities.

In others, local elections led to the cancellation or delay of projects, as incoming councillors implemented different plans based on the promises they had made to supporters; this was a common occurrence in 2016. In such situations, EPWP workers were left in limbo.

An EPWP worker in Bloemfontein reflected on the uncertainties faced by EPWP workers:

“The project was stopped because they said that they were still waiting for the money from the municipality, and this is now happening for the second time, because in 2015 in November they stopped it and in January 2016 we were not operational, and this had posed huge challenges because of my wife not working. The frustration is that one is not sure whether the incoming ward councillor will ensure that the project continues or not.”

Another female EPWP worker from East London also expressed uncertainty about the future of her work:

“I started working in the EPWP since March 2016. I am not sure about my future, because the contract comes to an end at the end of August [2016]. We can see that the places are dirty and there is a need for permanent employees who can clean all these facilities. I do not understand why they are not employing us.”

She spoke about how the short-term nature of EPWP jobs was a source of anxiety, making her unable to get credit because of her low income and job insecurity.

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EPWP workers were unable to get even very small amounts of credit, forcing some of them to turn to loan sharks, who charged them exorbitant interest, thus increasing their vulnerability and their financial problems. To address this, another EPWP worker based in Orange Farm suggested the following: “We must be permanent, we must have clock cards and then we must have … that which says what you [are] supposed to do during your working day.”

In July 2015 Elitsha covered a story of Orange Farm EPWP workers who went on strike demanding better working conditions.

The EPWP worker in Bloemfontein quoted earlier spoke about her desire for permanent employment: “Finally, I wish I can get a better job. It is my wish. My colleagues in the EPWP desire a decent wage increase. We are about forty workers of which only seven are males. They also want permanent jobs and benefits.”

Although the National Development Plan (NDP) plans to convert EPWP ‘work opportunities’ into permanent jobs, it seems that the current temporary nature of EPWP opportunities will not change in the foreseeable future.

In his medium-term budget speech, the former Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, stated that about 25,000 jobs would have to be cut to contain the expenditure of state departments. This would be done through attrition, meaning that staff shortages would continue to be one of the challenges facing local government and the state in general. The minister further indicated that the government planned to raise revenue through tax, by reducing the number of state employees and by reducing the budgets of municipalities and provincial governments.

The measures that will be introduced by the new Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba, regarding fiscal policy remain to be seen.

What complicated matters for the EPWP workers canvassed for this study was that they did not have a voice in the workplace.

This had to do with fear of victimisation: their concern was that if they started organising workers’ associations or forming committees or unions, management might dismiss them. The problem was compounded by the fact that there were divisions between permanent workers, who tended to belong to unions, and EPWP employees who were not unionised.

This finding indicates that managers in the public sector and in local government need to find ways of making sure that there are platforms for EPWP workers to air their views with regard to workplace issues and working conditions. Concerns around health and safety could then be resolved quickly, as they do not require great expenditure.

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