In late December last year, TSC got a call from a painter he used to work with when he was still in construction at the last company he worked for, let's call them Asshats Inc. This guy, Isak, was stressing because it was past Christmas and he hadn't been paid yet. He has two kids and a wife to feed, and he was at the end of his tether.
TSC deposited R300 into his bank account to tide him over until the end of the month, when the company promised to pay him. Last week, Isak called again. He still had not been paid. He'd managed to stretch that R300 (about $40US) for two weeks, but he once again couldn't put food on the table.
TSC and I discussed what we could do to help. We don't have spare money just lying around, especially not in January. But we decided that seeing we need to strip and repaint all the windows of our house, we would take a few hundred Rand out of our savings and hire Isak to do the painting. That way, he keeps his dignity and doesn't have to stress about paying us back, and our windows get sorted out. Plus, while he's with us we can feed him and save him buying groceries.
So Isak came to stay with us on Wednesday. We took him to see Avatar in 3D (his first time in a cinema), which he loved. At one point, during a fight scene, he took the viewing glasses off, saying that the characters were "just too close".
Chatting at home over supper afterwards, he told us that he has been working for Asshats Inc for four years and that they periodically treat him like this. Currently, he reckons that over 100 people and their families are still awaiting December payment from the company. He has been unable to buy his kids Christmas presents (I'm sending him home with some) or purchase their school stationery.
These workers from Asshats Inc are hardworking labourers who support their families on an absolute pittance. They have trade skills, but no training that would allow them to move into a career that pays better. Most earn around R2000 a month ($270US).
When the company doesn't pay them on time, they can't put food on the table, pay their bills (Isak has defaulted on his furniture repayments) or clothe their kids. Yet they are terrified to report the company to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) because they're sure they would lose their jobs. In the middle of a recession, construction jobs are hard to come by.
Most are paid in cash and don't pay tax, so the company simply denies that they work for them. The tragedy is that this seems to be the norm in construction in South Africa.
Isak, as a sub-contractor, issues the company with written invoices for work done and receives payment by direct deposit into his bank account, so he at least has proof that he works for the company. I'm chatting to a friend whose mom is a labour lawyer to see what his options are. We're also looking out for a driving job for him as he does have a driving licence and is reliable and willing.
He doesn't drink or gamble, is a church-goer and devoted father and I just can't get my head aeround the fact that such an honest, hardworking man should be made to suffer like this. It's not right. And it's definitely not right that Asshats Inc continues to get away with treating their employees like dirt.