By Caitlin Bantom

On  June 14, a number of EPWP (Expanded Public Works Programme) workers began a camp out outside of the Buffalo City Hall in East London from 19h00 as part of their protest for permanent jobs and a monthly living wage of R12 500.

EPWP BCM worker and Deputy regional secretary of NUPSAW, Asanda Fekema, said that what they are hoping to achieve out of the camp out is for the Buffalo City Mayor Xola Pakati, city manager and general manager of HR to agree to sit with them and hear their pleas and demands.

“The outcome that we are hoping to get out of this camp is for the Mayor to finally come to us and sit down with us because we don’t want him to send delegations anymore; we want to speak to him. We want to speak to the city manager, we want to speak to the general manager of HR, all of them – the three of them must be in a meeting with us because we’re not backing down, we want absorption. If they cannot employ us permanently, they can absorb us and make us temporary workers of Buffalo City, where we can get benefits, unlike now we’re getting R1600 per month, CWP is earning R780. What can you do with that amount of money? Everything is so expensive in South Africa nowadays,” she said.

The Eastern Cape provincial Coordinator, Zukisani Mkunqwana, said that the fight for permanent jobs and salary amendments have been going on for years and many other organizations and allies have committed itself to the campaign.

”The workers have been seeking permanent employment and salary increment for a number of years now, over the past three to four this has intensified thanks to the commitment of organizations such National Union for Public Sector and allies workers (NUPSAW) and the Marxist Workers Party (MWP) workers have put “worker unity” first in their quest to get their demands heard, hence you now see the campaign starting in most provinces,” He said.

Fekema said that they have tried to meet with the Buffalo City Mayor Xola Pakati on various occasions, handing over a memorandum on the 1stof April to which Pakati did not respond. They marched to the Mayor’s offices on the 13th of April to demand answers which led to various meetings that were not fruitful.

“We are tired; we’ve tried by all means to reach out to them. On the 1st of April, we went to hand in a memorandum, but unfortunately the Mayor of Buffalo City, Mr. Xola Pakati, was not there. So, they sent Mr. Xolani Witbooi, who is a councillor to receive the memorandum. We gave them up until the 13th to give us an answer. Up until the 13th there was no answer. Hence, we decided on the 13th to go there to demand answers. When we were there, the Mayor of Buffalo City with all his body guards, they tried to leave the office. But, eventually he returned back inside the yard and then he said the delegation can come in and sit with their delegation. They set up a meeting for the 15th of April. On the 15th of April, we went and sat with them in the chamber in the City Hall. We told them our demands are on the memorandum. They said we must come back on the 6th of May. On the 6th of May, there were no answers. After the 6th of May, they asked for 7 days. 7 days passed, so we decided to go to the cemetery. We went there to the cemetery; they called the police on us and then we left. After that we received a phone call saying we must go and sit with them on the 27th of May. They said no, the delay was from the senior management. So, now the senior management is going to be at the meeting. On the 27th, we went there, there was no senior management there and they had no answers for us,” she said.

It is alleged that the EPWP workers do not get any municipal benefits from their contracts and that they are not allowed to take maternity, sick or family responsibility leave unless they have someone who will act as a replacement for the time of their absence or suffer a pay cut.

”We don’t get any benefits from our contracts at work; we don’t even get any maternity leave. Let me tell you what happened to me. In 2017, I was pregnant. Do you know that I had to work up until the last day that I go to theatre? On the 21 of December, I was inside the theatre room to deliver my baby. I was last at work on the 19th or 20th of December if I’m not mistaken. So, we don’t get benefits, if you are sick they will deduct the money for that day or else you must send someone to go work on your behalf otherwise if you don’t send anyone or you don’t pitch up at work, even if your child is sick, they deduct money,” said Fekema.

On the claim that workers do not get any form of leave from work, Mkunqwana said, “first and foremost such despicable acts should be condemned, however such acts of cruelty must not surprise us, the government doesn’t refer to those In the EPWP, CWP as employees, they are referred to as ‘participants’. We basically live in a country where people that are workers are deprived of basic employee rights; this time around it’s not the farmers in the Western Cape but our own government.”

Filled with emotion, Fekema said that despite being hard workers for the ANC, they still find themselves being exploited.

‘”They are exploiting us in a bad way. It’s very bad; it makes me want to cry so loud every time I think of the years that we’ve spent and mind you we are the ANC volunteers here. We work for our ANC, we volunteer, we do work for them, and even Xola Pakati can tell you. He is on that chair because of us, if it was not because of us – he would have never been the mayor of Buffalo City today. But today, he doesn’t want to listen to us. They’re doing nothing, come elections –we go in and out, we leave our houses early in the morning, we go home around 11, working for ANC,” she said.

Mkunqwana said that he admired all the workers for fighting a system that is rigged against them and that the campaign targets all ‘slave programs’ introduced by the government.  

“It is admirable that the working class can unite against a government that has been adopting and putting in place policies that are anti poor and anti-working class. It is also important to note that this campaign is not only centered around EPWP, but also on other slave programs that the government has put in place, these are; CHW, CWP and various other programs that are put in place all in the name of “poverty alleviation.” How does one alleviate poverty by offering R750 or R1500 when this country’s food basket is way over that?” said Mkunqwana.

The EPWP National Coordinator, Executive Mukwevho, Buffalo City Mayor Xola Pakati and councilor Xolani Witbooi were not available for comment at the time of publishing.

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