Waiting for work day after day

Unemployed men and women try their luck at sites across the city

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Photo of men waiting by the roadside
Donald Mutasa scrapes together money to send back to his family in Zimbabwe, despite earning very little every week. Photo: Masixole Feni

On street corners across Cape Town, men and women wait for work, often spending the whole day there without luck. Some have been coming to these spots for years, managing to get work for one or two days a week.

In the city centre, from the corner of Buitengracht and Strand streets towards Rose Lane, men begin gathering at around 7am. By 9am there are about 30 men waiting and watching as the cars pass by.

Every time an empty bakkie pulls up, the men sprint to it. A minute or two later, the bakkie pulls away with at most a couple of men in the back, on their way to work as tilers, painters, bricklayers or general labourers. The rest trudge back to their spots to wait for the next bakkie. “We are too many here [to all get work],” says one of the men.

37-year-old Vusi Gefe has been coming to this spot to look for work since he was 30. He travels here every day from Khayelitsha.

“Sometimes, I don’t get a job and have to go back to Khayelitsha with nothing,” he says. The last time that he got any work was over a week ago.

Photo of a man
Vusi Gefe, centre, says that if he doesn’t get a job he has go back to Khayelitsha with nothing. Photo: Masixole Feni

Seven years ago Gefe lost his job as a cleaner. He now specialises in tiling but mostly gets work as a general labourer.

His girlfriend works in a restaurant and she has been supporting him and their 19-month-old son when he doesn’t have work.

“When I’m tiling I charge R250 to R350 per day, but when I’m working in general work they pay me R150 to R180,” says Gefe.

“I hope one day I will get a permanent job because I don’t want to stand here the whole day,” he says. “I have to support the kid; I have to buy clothes and food … So if I don’t find a job, I will be frustrated.”

Kevin Dalmain waits down the road where it is less busy, looking slightly out of place in his smart shirt. Dalmain is 50 and has two children. He lost his bricklayer job about a year and a half ago when the company he worked for moved overseas.

“I couldn’t afford to go overseas, because what would happen to my family?” says Dalmain. He lives with his girlfriend, who is also unemployed, in Woodstock.

He has been coming to this corner for about three months.

“Sometimes the people coming here pay you good money, so then you ask for a regular job and if the luck strikes then it is good. But sometimes, the people just pay R50 or R60 a day. The most is R150 a day for bricklaying,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s embarrassing, because what do the people think about you?”

Photo of men at a roadside.
Men standing and waiting for work on Rose Street. Photo: Masixole Feni

Donald Mutasa came to South Africa from Zimbabwe seven months ago hoping to train as a truck driver. For the past four months, he has been coming to this corner looking for work.

“There are no jobs in Zimbabwe,” he says.

He has been saving for his training, but with the little money that he earns and with having to support his family, this is hard.

Mutasa, 35, has a wife and four children back home in Zimbabwe. He manages to send money to them though he only works one or two days a week for R150 a day.

“I try my best to send what I have,” he says. He doesn’t want his family to come to South Africa until he gets a permanent job.

Photo of men sitting at side of road waiting for work
Men wait on the corner of Rose Lane and Strand Street for work that usually pays about R150 a day. Photo: Masixole Feni

Amos Dube sits on the pavement alongside a truck that is offloading goods for a liquor store. Dube is an auto-electrician but he has not worked as one for two years. He has had to work as a plasterer and a general labourer.

He says he has been coming to this spot for two months, travelling from Philippi. If fortunate, he works three times a week earning R150 a day. He also walks around, handing out his CV to prospective employers, but he has not received a response for over a month.

“You can’t manage a good living with that money,” says Dube, who is 25.

His wife works at a restaurant, earning R400 per week with which they support their 18-month-old child.

Less than a kilometre down the road, opposite Cape Town train station, a small group of women wait on the corner of Strand and Lower Plein Streets hoping for domestic work.

Photo of a group of women
Women wait for domestic work opposite the Cape Town train station. Photo: Masixole Feni

Esther Mahwehwe has been looking for work for a month, since she moved to Cape Town from Durban. A relative told her she should come and look for work here.

Mahwehwe, a widow, is 48 and Zimbabwean. She worked in Durban for four years, but after her boss died, she was unemployed. She has now managed to secure work for two days a week, but says, “You can’t survive on two days [work]”. She has to support her children and grandchildren who still live in Zimbabwe.

“They don’t have jobs. They don’t have money,” she says. “Your blood pressure can go high [when you are unemployed]. I can’t sleep, just thinking how can I get a job … I need to have money to survive.”

Another woman from Zimbabwe, Mary Chigodora, is also waiting on the corner. She has been in Cape Town for five years and has been looking for permanent work for the last two years.

She says she is “sick and tired” of coming to this spot. “I buy a train ticket every month, but I won’t get a job here. The children they need to eat. I just come here to struggle,” she says.

Chigodora is currently only working two days a week as a babysitter for two families.

Despite Chigodora’s constant worry about making ends meet, she makes the other women laugh at her jokes as they wait around for work.

Photo of men by the roadside
Men wait for work as general labourers, tilers, painters and bricklayers. Photo: Masixole Feni

Terry Ncube has been looking for work for the past two months, because she could not make enough money from her clothes trading business to support her son and herself in Zimbabwe.

“My brother sometimes helps me with rent and food,” says widowed Ncube, who is 49.

Her biggest worry she says is her son in Zimbabwe. She hasn’t seen him in two years. He lives with his grandmother.

“I am so stressed,” says Ncube. “My son is supposed to go to university but I can’t manage to pay.”

Her son wants to study computer sciences and did very well in his A-levels.

“I used to send money back and some food but now I can’t … I just need to get something so that he will be able to look after himself,” she says.

Do we need a new definition of unemployment?

According to a recent survey, 56% of South Africans rank unemployment as the country’s most important unresolved problem (next was crime at 29%).

Surprisingly, many of the people interviewed in this article are considered employed in the official statistics.

In the official definition, a person who is 15 to 64 years old is considered employed if during the past week he or she worked even for an hour. A person is officially unemployed if he or she looked for work in the previous four weeks but didn’t find any work at all in the past week.

Stats SA consistently finds that about one in four (25%) people are unemployed by the official definition.

The expanded definition of unemployment is people who desire work but do not have work, irrespective of whether or not they’re searching for work. This is typically about 35% of 15 to 64 year-olds. Even by this definition, most of the people interviewed here are not unemployed.

TOPICS:  Labour Unemployment

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