Changing policies to benefit migrant mineworkers is vital in a country that depends on them, writes Mandi Smallhorne.
Under the welcome shade of a thorn tree, two Mozambican miners reflect on the impact of migrant work on their lives. The contrast between this place – the dusty Nkaneng informal settlement, in the shadow of the Lonmin smelter and the notorious Wonderkop hill – and their greener, more tropical homes is stark.
"Chauke" and "Alfred" have agreed to talk to me on the condition that their real names are not used.
They came to the mines for work that would support their families, but that means they are doomed to live in unpleasant circumstances: "Since 1994, I am still in this place – a squatter camp like this," says Chauke, struggling to express himself in English, his pleasant, gentle face momentarily shadowed. "There is no water, no electricity, no toilet."
But, worst of all, there is no money that will provide a better future for his three daughters, far away from him. One of his daughters could be a doctor, he thinks – if there was any money for her studies.
Alfred expresses the yearning of the migrant worker for home when he speaks of his six children, each of whom was conceived on one of his two or three trips home a year during the 18 years he's worked here. He misses them so much he is thinking of "bringing over" his youngest child so he can spend time with her while she is still not at school.
Alfred is a supervisor, in charge of the legendary rock drill operators, but because he is employed through a labour broker, he tells me, he is not entitled to any benefits at all. Chauke says he makes no pension fund contribution, and is vague about what occupational disease or injury benefits he's entitled to.
He was not told about them when he was recruited, he says. And he's very clear on one thing: his wife at home in Mozambique, far to the north of Maputo, would not even begin to know how to claim any money due to him and his family, should that task fall to her.
"She doesn't even have a passport," he says.
And if she failed to claim those benefits successfully, some of the value of all her family has sacrificed, those long years her husband was away living in poor conditions, the labour that he contributed to building South African industry, would be lost to both her and her daughters.
Moliehi Ramonate, the liaison officer in the migrant section at the department of labour and employment in Lesotho, helps such women every day, and believes that as much as 50% of money due to Basotho claimants goes unclaimed or unpaid.
A perennial beef is the inexplicable length of time it takes to process a claim: "A recent case was a widow whose husband died of TB. We received the claim in February 2010; she was only paid the first week of August this year. She has three children and no other income. Most of the mineworkers' wives are not working; they come from very remote mountain areas, they are normally at home taking care of the children, the property, the animals."
Malawi no longer sends mineworkers to South Africa, but Malawians were once a mainstay of the mines, and some of those men have died waiting for their claims to be paid.
"Of those who were working in the 1990s, some are still not receiving their benefits," says Excell Kumbemba, principal human resource management officer at the department of home affairs in Malawi.
"They don't know which way to go. The payments are so slow," says his colleague, Paul Gondwe, the chief labour officer with the department of labour.
According to Mduduzi Hlophe, a legal adviser at the department of labour and social security in Swaziland, "the question of portability of social security benefits needs to be attended to with extreme urgency, particularly in view of the poverty levels in the region and the strain on social service budgets".
Benefit portability was one crucial reason why the venerable International Labour Organisation (ILO) organised a consultative meeting called "Towards a Regional Strategy on Labour Migration" with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Boksburg from August 22 to 24.
"Migration has been a feature of this region for a long time," says Joni Musabayana, deputy director in the ILO's Pretoria office. "Subsequent to independence in South Africa, the phenomenon has become more profound, more diverse, but I think the policy response has lagged.
"Institutional structures to facilitate portability of benefits have to be built on a policy framework, and if that framework is not there, the institutions are not able to function the way they should."
The deputy director general of South Africa's department of labour, Sam Morotoba, agrees: "I think the issue is that we should have coherent labour market policies that maintain labour standards across the region. These policies should balance aspects around development in various countries, and should also take into account conventions that are already in existence."
As a starting point for the creation of such coherent labour market policies, the ILO and SADC asked all the SADC member states to bring delegates to the meeting who represented both home affairs and labour (or the equivalent state departments), because migration issues fall under the remit of both – home affairs tends to tackle the issues from a security aspect, whereas labour often takes a rights-based approach.
"I could be wrong, but I think this may be the first time that ministries of labour and home affairs, employers and workers sat down together," says Musabayana.
The impact and problems of labour migration are not unique to Southern Africa, says Jo Rispoli, a regional specialist on labour migration/migration and development for the International Organisation for Migration.
The lack of congruency between mechanisms (for social security, for taxation and for benefit portability) in countries of origin and host countries is a dilemma in many regions, such as the Mercosur countries of South America and Caricom, the Caribbean community.
"Without having these agreements and frameworks in place, it becomes very difficult, and then employers sometimes take advantage of that as well, because they can save money by not making payments," says Rispoli.
However, there is a historical context in Southern Africa that creates a slightly different set of circumstances here, says Bob Deacon, emeritus professor of international social policy at the University of Sheffield, who presented on the portability of benefits at the ILO/SADC meeting. "There's a difference between the immediate current historical problem [which is the legacy that has to be sorted out], and establishing effective agreements between social security systems in neighbouring countries."
So Southern Africa has two issues to deal with: the legacy of the past's poor policies, which is creating a human tragedy in the present for mineworkers and their beneficiaries; and creating a policy framework that will be an effective and user-friendly foundation for regional labour migration – and a guarantee of integrated social security and benefit portability – in the future.
We can learn from work done in this field in other parts of the world, says Ariel Pino, an ILO social security specialist who hails from Argentina but is now based in Dakar.
Pino stresses that social security policy frameworks within regions or country groupings seek to achieve two major objectives: the treatment of migrant workers as equal to nationals, and the guarantee that migrant workers get to enjoy the benefits to which they are entitled, which they have earned through their contributions, even if they return to their home country.
"You have to find a way that you can put everything together through what we call social security agreements," he says. "That's when you agree with your partners about how you deal with the differences" between your systems and come to a common understanding of how to manage them.
This may be through bilateral or multilateral agreements – which bring together countries by region, by interest or by language, for example, such as the Ibero-American grouping that unites Portugal and Spain with countries in South and Central America that speak Spanish or Portuguese.
What elements would be in the mix that makes up an effective policy framework, one that would transform the current environment for the migrant worker and make benefits accessible?
Decent data capture would go a long way towards solving the problem of benefit portability.
"I believe that there is scope in a policy to put into place measures that can assist," says Kevin Cotterell, head of new business at Teba, a recruitment company.
"For instance, if we used our database to scan all mineworkers' documents linked to their currently held biographical details, we would be in a very strong position to reduce the problems of obtaining these claims-supporting documents once we have traced beneficiaries."
If a regional policy framework included provisions that integrated data collection across the countries in the SADC region, this would be a game-changer for the issue of benefit portability.
"The fundamental problem regarding 'old' [pension or provident] funds is the incompleteness of data," says Zingaphi Jakuja, head of communications at the Chamber of Mines. "Many mines did not capture birth dates [many have January 1 as their birth date, which is the date of the beginning of their employment contract, because they were either illiterate or did not know their actual birth date], residential addresses and the names of dependants or beneficiaries. There is no information at all regarding 'second families'. The section 37C [of the Pension Funds Act] process to trace the beneficiaries of a deceased member is onerous. The onus is on the board of management of the fund to trace the dependants of the deceased. The board is required to take all reasonable steps to identify and trace the beneficiaries. It is very difficult to do this when the data is incomplete. This problem is exacerbated where the deceased was a migrant worker."
Proper and thorough documentation, in both the sending and receiving countries, is key – a foundational principle that ensures that adequate and accurate data is captured and kept safely in the records.
"It is important that travel documentation for migrants is affordable and accessible – when it is not, that's when people will resort to crossing borders illegally. People who are properly documented have recourse to the authorities if they are abused. The issue of emoluments then also becomes much easier to manage," says Morotoba.
Ramonate's suggestions to manage the portability of benefits are based on her day-to-day experience. She'd like, for a start, to light a fire under bureaucrats by getting member states to agree to a common timeframe to process a person's claim.
"Another solution would be for the member states to commit themselves to educating their workers, prior to departure, on South African law should you be injured or found to have TB … Member states should ensure that their families of the mineworkers are also informed. Our African men do not readily discuss their work issues with their wives," she says drily.
Musabayana says: "If workers are not well handled at the pre-migration stage, the challenge is at the end of the process, post-migration."
Ensuring that workers and their families are thoroughly prepared for all eventualities would remove obstacles later. Chris Molebatsi, a member of the Bench Marks Foundation, suggests one simple tip to save much time and energy when it comes to accessing benefits: the sending country should ensure that beneficiaries are issued passports when a mineworker is recruited, with reminders to renew it when it expires.
Finally, Ramonate comments that some sort of monitoring mechanism is essential.
All of this would require a common level of capacity, particularly in information technology. Pino points out that the IT capacity can vary between neighbouring countries – where one has sophisticated technology, another may still be using paper files.
"As an ILO senior official once said, it's an issue of a complex South Africa with regard to information technology, with neighbours that are not there yet as far as the IT is concerned, so the question of capacity is important. Not only from the angle of IT, but also labour administration systems, I think there need to be clear and sufficient budgets to undertake capacity building," says Hlophe. "It's by no means an easy task; it requires serious commitment and dedication."
Stakeholders such as SADC and the major receiving country, South Africa, might need to play a role in building integrated capacity across borders, as Aurelia Segatti, senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, suggests.
Segatti's colleague, Zaheera Jinnah, says the issue of benefits is not always tackled at a high level.
Nor, for that matter, is social security for migrants generally. But without placing it on the agenda, things are unlikely to change.
"Political will is necessary to make any process happen," says Segatti.