Social insecurity

In 2001 Alfred Nkhambule went blind instantly when fine gold stones peppered his eyes while working at a gold mine in Carletonville, outside Johannesburg. The doctor who treated the 51-year-old also diagnosed him with TB — contracted through prolonged exposure to mine dust.

After being retrenched Nkhambule returned to his native Swaziland to find that he was without any social security provisions, including healthcare. The mining company refused to assist. ”I don’t even know how much was supposed to be paid to me as compensation because the company just said I should leave behind the doctor’s documents and they would work out how much is due to me.”

To add insult to injury, Nkhambule has been moved from pillar to post in an unsuccessful attempt to access his pension payout. The Swazi government has opted not to assist, says Ndlavela Dlamini, president of the Swaziland National Ex-Mine Workers Association. ”Our problem is that when you want to get your pension you are told that you have to go to South Africa. But when we raise these issues with government as an association we are just brushed off. Government only encourages us to talk only about development projects that we should start now that we are back home.”

Swazi migrant miners also have to contend with non-cooperative local organisations to recover benefits, in particular The Employment Bureau of Africa (Teba). Responsible for recruitment in the mining industry and caretakers of the Voluntary Defect Pay Special Fund (monies that result from interest from miners’ pay), Teba regularly stonewalls payouts.

Nkhambule is one of tens of thousands of migrant workers in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) who are being doubly punished by a lack of social security portability in the region.

Migrant labour — both formal and informal — is a growing phenomenon in the region. Increased poverty, political instability and environmental issues are pushing people out of Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Malawi to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia (and, increasingly, to Angola).

Migrant labour in South Africa’s mining and agriculture industries serves as the backbone of these industries, and at times even surpasses local labour. According to a Teba and Southern Africa Migration Project July 2007 study, from 1992 to 2003 more than half of all labourers in the South African mining industry were foreigners. Global events, such as the Fifa 2010 World Cup, with its construction projects, and the high price of commodities, also conspire to make certain SADC countries more attractive to job seekers. And with the SADC Free Trade Area launched in August and a regional customs union planned for 2010, cross border labour migration is expected to increase.

But most SADC migrant workers lose any social security benefits (pension, unemployment insurance, health insurance, old age or disability benefits) they may have accrued when they return to their home countries, according to a new policy brief from the Southern Africa Trust, a Johannesburg-based independent agency that supports wider and deeper engagement in regional policy dialogue.

Its report, Crossing the Threshold of Regionalism: Can We Meet the Social Cost of Integration in Southern Africa?, highlights the significant administrative and policy gaps that exist in SADC when it comes to social benefits portability.

There is no common regional agreement on the maintenance of rights and benefits, the aggregation of insurance periods or on the exportability of benefits. Professor Marius Olivier of the Centre for International and Comparative Labour and Social Security Law notes that SADC stands out as being particularly weak in regional and bilateral social benefit agreements, while other regional bodies such as Carifta, the Caribbean Free Trade Association, and Mercosur, a South American common trade body, have well developed agreements in place. The only existing bilateral agreement in the SADC region is a workers’ compensation agreement between Zambia and Malawi.

SADC countries have vastly different social benefit programmes. Some, such as South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, offer wide ranging social insurance covering adoption, maternity and unemployment; others, such as Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe, offer limited social insurance but have specific non-contributory schemes (such as War Veterans, in the case of the latter two countries). Add to this differing eligibility criteria, laws that are nationality or residency oriented (as opposed to purely employment oriented) and overly strict immigration policies and it is no wonder that many migrant workers prefer to opt out of the formal sector completely.

The consequences are severe. ”This [lack of portability] discourages migrant workers from investing in saving schemes and from returning home,” says Barbara Kalima-Phiri, a policy analyst for poverty reduction strategies at the trust. Migrant workers also end up using cash to pay for basic services — both in their host country and their country of origin.

The policy brief calls for a regional framework that ensures access to and portability of social benefits throughout the region, integrating social assistance with social services (so that cash transfers are not used to pay for basic social services), and strengthening the role of key stakeholders — notably civil society.

According to Kalima-Phiri, civil society can play a meaningful role, especially in promoting self-organised, mutual aid arrangements in response to the absence of adequate formal social protection systems.

Positive developments are under way. The Department of Social Development has commissioned a study into migratory worker rights and there is evidence of strong will among most SADC governments. (Article 10 of the SADC Charter of Fundamental Rights states that all member states will create environments that enable all workers — regardless of residency or citizenship status — to enjoy rights of protection and social security benefits and allow those who enter or re-enter the labour markets to receive sufficient resources and social assistance.)

But for Nkhambule and the many other migrant labourers in the region policy discussions and charter statements are cold change when their social benefits are not forthcoming.


  • Develop a comprehensive regional approach: SADC countries must work to achieve bilateral agreements to ensure access to and portability of social benefits. A comprehensive regional social protection framework is also required to ensure harmonisation and coordination of social security systems across the region.
  • Integrate social assistance with social services: The provision of basic social services (such as education and healthcare) are critical to breaking the cycle of poverty but are often paid for at the expense of social assistance (such as basic income, child and disability grants). Governments must be encouraged to maintain or increase social services independent of any social assistance programmes.
  • Strengthening the role of key stakeholders: While governments are responsible for overall coordination, partnerships with NGOs are essential. Civil society organisations can assist by promoting self-organised, mutual aid arrangements.

Additional reporting by Mantoe Phakathi (IPS)

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