‘I think in my company we have buried four workers who were shot dead on site,” says Sizwe Mabasa*, his hands buried in the pockets of his jacket.
“It is very dangerous. And even if it didn’t happen to you, you are still going to have to live with that fear.”
Mabasa works for one of the 12 security companies tasked with protecting the vulnerable Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) system in Johannesburg.
It’s a treacherous job, especially for night-shift workers, who patrol 50m stretches in pairs, with only their torches and the glow of the signal lights to cut through the darkness.
“We’re used to it now. Every time you report to duty you know you can expect anything that is dangerous. You must be alert that something can happen to you,” says Aubrey Ledwaba*, the icy Johannesburg winter morning causing him to shiver. “You go to work, but you don’t really know if tomorrow you’ll be able to go back home.”
Ledwaba works for another security company at Prasa, where he has worked for six years. Mabasa has worked there for seven years.
Mabasa, Ledwaba and their colleagues, Janet Mthethwa*, Lindiwe Mathabathe* and Tebogo Simelane*, say they have made peace with some of their working conditions. The sites they patrol don’t have any toilets, running water, electricity or shelter from the elements.
But they want Prasa to employ them on a permanent basis — as do the almost 3 500 other security workers whose jobs are in jeopardy because the rail agency plans to terminate its contracts with the security companies.
A letter sent by Prasa to Royal Security reveals that the rail agency is terminating the long-time contracts because they were found to have been irregularly awarded. The letter, seen by the Mail & Guardian, notifies the company that its contract with Prasa will be terminated pending a new tender process. An email sent to Prasa security managers this week says the security contracts will be extended for two months until the end of August “to ensure the new tender process is completed”.
“It is better to die while you are permanent. It’s what we want,” Mthethwa says, the glitter in her pink lipstick catching the morning light.
The security guards have joined the cleaners in their call for permanent jobs and better salaries. In May, a group of 121 cleaners and security guards staged a picket at the Prasa’s Park Station offices in Johannesburg.
They were arrested and kept in police custody overnight and released at 8.30pm on the night of May 8 — election day.
Prasa subsequently locked the workers out of their place of work. In papers filed in an urgent labour court application to end the lock-out, Prasa said the rail agency does not have an employment relationship with the workers.
Prasa “must cut the middlemen”, Mathabathe says. “I want to be insourced so that I can take care of my children and my mother.”
Steeling herself against the cold, she talks with fight in her voice, the beginning of tears betraying her pain. Her fears of the dangers of her job are far outweighed by the fears she has of not being able to provide for her family.
“I am scared because I have a family to take care of. I am not scared any more. I will just pay with my life. As long as my children can have a loaf of bread every day to take to school,” she says. “We are in danger, but we have to take a risk because we have families to protect.”
A tear trails down her cheek only to be dried by the stinging winter breeze. “The money that I receive from that contract is very, very little to support my family. I am both a mother and a father. I grew up without a father so I am the one that is responsible at home … Everything is up to me.”
The security guards say they earn a basic salary of about R4 300 for 17 12-hour shifts a month. They are given a night shift allowance of R5.50 a night. This is in accordance with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. The workers want a minimum wage of R10 000.
The security guards say they are treated differently to permanent Prasa workers. The rail agency has its own security officers, called protection services, “but the situation is different because they [the permanent workers] cannot work where there are no toilets, no water and no shelter. So, because we are from service providers, we are forced to work there,” Mabasa says.
Mthethwa calls the areas they are made to patrol “the bush”. She says permanent workers are not sent to patrol these areas.
“It is not safe, because if you have to urinate you have to do that in front of a man. If you want to be safe, he must guard you,” Mthethwa says, her voice growing bolder. “If we were permanent, maybe it would be better.”
The security guards say they are also fined R600 for offences such as falling asleep on duty, leaving their equipment at home, or for having faulty equipment.
“The client [Prasa] treats us like a donkey,” Simelane says, adding that she believes she was dismissed for fighting to be hired by the rail agency. She had worked for a security company at Prasa for 17 years.
Of the years he has spent working at Prasa, Ledwaba says: “It has been a long time. And when you check the benefits: no medical aid, no provident fund.”
Mabasa says the relationship between Prasa and the service providers also makes it difficult for workers to get the security
company to improve their working conditions. “Our employee can go into a meeting with Prasa to discuss our working conditions without us. And then come back with conditions that are unbearable. We have no access to talk to people from Prasa.”
In response to the M&G’s questions, Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani reiterated that the security guards have no employment relationship with the rail agency. She said the service providers are responsible for remuneration and the dismissal of workers. “The contracted guards are remunerated by the private service providers and paid according the wage determination applicable and guidelines from PSIRA [the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority].”
Zenani said that after the current security contracts are terminated, the security guards will no longer be employed at Prasa. But she said there are plans to eventually “phase out contracted security in identified areas and replace them with full-time employed security guards”.
In his state of the nation debate speech on Tuesday new Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula reiterated his promise to help “get Prasa back on track”.
“Ours is to make sure that Prasa is reliable and safe — we shall achieve this,” he said.
Earlier that morning Mbalula, travelled on Prasa’s battered Cape Town train service from Khayelitsha to Langa. He used the train ride to announce the government’s plans to fix the city’s train service, which has deteriorated in recent years because of vandalism. Prasa responded to the torching of 12 train coaches at Cape Town station on April 21 by suspending its contracts with security companies.
Mathabathe says she thinks Prasa has got away with not insourcing its workers because security guards and cleaners are disregarded in South Africa.
“Our government undermines us. It is very painful. Cleaners must clean their houses; security must guard them for 24 hours,” she says, her voice shaking with anger.
“But they just give us peanuts, while their dogs eat Kellogg’s with fresh milk every morning.”
* Not their real names