Migrant Wellbeing : Social Security Responses in a Time of Deadly Disease

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Janet Munakamwe
Visiting Senior Lecturer at | + posts

Dr Janet Munakamwe is a Visiting Senior Lecturer at Wits Mining Institute, University of the Witwatersrand and a South African Labour Bulletin Board Member. She is affiliated to the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS).

Migrants in South Africa under the Covid 19 lockdown suffered acutely. Janet Munakamwe explains why this was the case and argues for a different way of managing migrant workers’ needs.

In 2019 coronavirus, popularly known as Covid 19, broke out in China and swiftly spread across the globe. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a global pandemic in March 2020 and recommended national lockdowns to slow its spread. This pandemic has presented difficulties which have particularly affected workers in non-standard employment – insecure work with no contract, no regular wage, no social protection in the form of benefits, and no workplace representation. Migrants and asylum seekers often fall into this category and are especially vulnerable.  

The lockdown has laid bare the structural exclusion of certain categories of workers from social security protection. Many vulnerable workers in sectors such as domestic, agriculture, retail, hospitality, and informal and casual work were excluded from accessing social security at the time of the lockdown.  Cross-border migrants suffered the most as they are excluded from receiving social grants available to South African workers. Some migrants contributed towards the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), but they were not registered with the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL).

Yet social security is central and constitutes the core of fundamental labour rights.  Paradoxically however, the pandemic has given people an opportunity to revive the conversation on social security, the universal basic income grant (UBIG), and health insurance particularly for frontline workers such as community health workers who are hired as volunteers or casuals in the public health system.

Social security is enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, labour laws, regional protocols and in International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.  It serves as a universal economic safety net for all workers regardless of citizenship or migration status.

The ILO sees social security as a fundamental universal right for all workers. In 1952 the Organisation adopted the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention (No. 102), which “is the flagship of all ILO social security Conventions, as it is the only international instrument, based on basic social security principles, that establishes worldwide-agreed minimum standards for all nine branches of social security”.  The nine branches are medical care, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, old-age benefit, employment injury benefit, family benefit, maternity benefit, invalidity benefit, and survivors’ benefit.

Likewise, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Charter on Fundamental Social Rights and the SADC Code of Social Security also prescribe guidelines on social security benefits for all workers.  But in Africa, including in the SADC region, there is inadequate socio-economic provision to cover workers and their families during times of need. 

 In compliance with the regional and international statutory requirements, the South African Constitution provides that ‘everyone has the right of access to social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents’. Social assistance currently includes child support, old age and disability grants.  Section 5 of the Social Assistance Act restricts social grants to South African citizens although this has been extended to permanent residents and refugees subject to meeting certain conditions.

Migrants, UIF and Other Funds

For workers, the Unemployment Insurance Act prescribes a social security fund, the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), to which both employers and employees contribute 1%.  This is used by workers to cover lost income during times of economic crisis related to unemployment, illness, maternity, adoption, and to assist dependents in the case of the worker’s death.

Migrant workers can register for UIF with DEL, although the law prevents undocumented migrants from enjoying this right.  Employers often hire undocumented migrants in order to pay low wages and exploit them.  While it is unlawful to hire undocumented workers it however, follows that once they are employed they should be entitled to the rights of any other employees.  

During lockdown some migrant workers who contribute towards the UIF, struggled to access payments due to the ’13 Digit System’ crafted according to the South African Green Book identity card, although this technical problem was eventually resolved.  It took over four months to resolve and some migrants went back to work without receiving pay outs. For those who have been temporarily laid off, they continue to wait patiently to receive responses to their UIF applications.

On a related note, some workers have benefitted from the Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) which was introduced as an alternative gateway to UIF under lockdown. It particularly targeted those who were not officially registered with the DEL.

In reality the UIF favoured those in standard employment regardless of their nationality. This meant that South African and migrant workers in vulnerable sectors were excluded.

In response to the socio-economic problems resulting from the lockdown, the government introduced an economic stimulus package of five hundred million Rand. This was meant to cushion small business and poor citizens against economic distress in addition to receiving UIF payments.  Government used part of the package to boost the existing social grant scheme, and part for a temporary grant, the unemployment social relief,  to support the unemployed. This was administered by the Department of Social Development.

Government introduced the stimulus package for six months but it later extended it to nine months.

Corporates and humanitarian organisations also set up an independent Solidarity Fund. However, migrants were excluded from the official criteria. They thus depended on assistance from humanitarian organisations which gave support from time to time.

Fragmented Solidarity and Landmark Victory

The pandemic exposed the fragmented solidarity among the working class poor.  The social security packages excluded migrants and South Africans working outside of standard employment.

Most trade unions paid particular attention to the needs of their membership and neglected the majority of workers who were not unionised. The health crisis laid bare the negative aspects of South African nationalism and the primacy of the formal economy over the informal and migrant economy.   Citizens and permanent workers were the priority.

This resulted in the poor asserting they would die of hunger or poverty. This prompted the self-organisation of some casual workers such as community health workers, with the support of migrant-rights law organisations and worker advice offices.

In 2010, the Department of Home Affairs granted Special Permits to undocumented Zimbabweans living in South Africa. In 2016, it also granted at the minister’s discretion a special permit for undocumented Basotho known as the Lesotho Special Permit. The exclusion of asylum seekers and special-permit holders from the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant (SRD grant) came under the spotlight during the lockdown.

In May 2020 the Scalabrini Centre, represented by the law company Norton Rose Fulbright, filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Social Development in the Pretoria High Court. Before the court ruling, the special Covid-19 SRD grant of R350was only available to South African citizens, refugee status holders, and permanent residents.  But in June the court ruled that some asylum-seekers and special-permit holders could apply for the SRD grant.  They could receive the grantif their documentation was valid at the time, and if they were not receiving an income, other grants, or economic relief from UIF.

Social Dialogue

Documented migrant workers are covered by the labour laws of South Africa but they have no dedicated representation at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). NEDLAC is a platform which brings together social partners including government, business, organised labour, and the community constituency. Migrant-rights organisations are not included as representatives in the community constituency.

As a result, migrant-specific issues such as relevant documentation are neglected at the collective bargaining table.  Problems with acquiring relevant immigration documents complicates access to social security as registration with the DEL is dependent on such documents and migration status.

Under lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa met with representatives from the community constituency who presented issues from their membership that needed particular attention. Unfortunately, they omitted to discuss migrant-specific matters.

However migrants made their voices heard through the Covid 19 People’s Coalition which was established in response to the pandemic. In other words, non-state actors such as worker advice offices, migrant rights organisations, and humanitarian organisations provided material support to migrants under lockdown and continue to do so.

It is clearly time to rethink the idea of social dialogue to include other forms of worker representation in addition to representation by trade union. It is necessary to ensure that there are interventions for all workers including migrants.

Conclusion

The pandemic presented many challenges for workers but also an opportunity to revisit some long-standing issues.  In particular, it laid bare socio-economic inequalities.  This included policy gaps that privilege workers in standard formal employment and South African citizens, while much policy neglected casuals, informal workers and migrants.

Also the pandemic showed that crafting and adopting critical policies need not take limitless time as the Scalabrini court challenge showed. A number of socio-economic policies came into being rapidly during the lockdown.


Asylum seekers and special-permit holders were excluded from the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant until a court case ruled that certain migrants could apply  (Nigel Sibanda)

The pandemic also exposed the non-compliance with social security legislation by employers. This resulted in a number of calls from labour and migrant organisations for stricter government enforcement mechanisms and an improved labour inspectorate in the post-Covid 19 economy.

Equally important in the future is the need to revisit the concept of social dialogue. Such dialogue needs to review restrictive immigration laws that exclude migrants from enjoying labour rights and benefits.

Most importantly though, the health crisis allowed the revival of some long-standing struggles such as the call for a universal basic income grant, the demands of the food sovereignty campaign (for the right to access healthy food produced in an ecologically and sustainable way), and the demands of social cohesion campaigns which work towards the solidarity of all workers including the unemployed and migrants.

In May 2020 the Scalabrini Centre, represented by the law company Norton Rose Fulbright, filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Social Development in the Pretoria High Court. Before the court ruling, the special Covid-19 SRD grant of R350was only available to South African citizens, refugee status holders, and permanent residents.  But in June the court ruled that some asylum-seekers and special-permit holders could apply for the SRD grant.  They could receive the grantif their documentation was valid at the time, and if they were not receiving an income, other grants, or economic relief from UIF.

Social Dialogue

Documented migrant workers are covered by the labour laws of South Africa but they have no dedicated representation at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). NEDLAC is a platform which brings together social partners including government, business, organised labour, and the community constituency. Migrant-rights organisations are not included as representatives in the community constituency.

As a result, migrant-specific issues such as relevant documentation are neglected at the collective bargaining table.  Problems with acquiring relevant immigration documents complicates access to social security as registration with the DEL is dependent on such documents and migration status.

Under lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa met with representatives from the community constituency who presented issues from their membership that needed particular attention. Unfortunately, they omitted to discuss migrant-specific matters.

However migrants made their voices heard through the Covid 19 People’s Coalition which was established in response to the pandemic. In other words, non-state actors such as worker advice offices, migrant rights organisations, and humanitarian organisations provided material support to migrants under lockdown and continue to do so.

It is clearly time to rethink the idea of social dialogue to include other forms of worker representation in addition to representation by trade union. It is necessary to ensure that there are interventions for all workers including migrants.

Conclusion

The pandemic presented many challenges for workers but also an opportunity to revisit some long-standing issues.  In particular, it laid bare socio-economic inequalities.  This included policy gaps that privilege workers in standard formal employment and South African citizens, while much policy neglected casuals, informal workers and migrants.

Also the pandemic showed that crafting and adopting critical policies need not take limitless time as the Scalabrini court challenge showed. A number of socio-economic policies came into being rapidly during the lockdown.

The pandemic also exposed the non-compliance with social security legislation by employers. This resulted in a number of calls from labour and migrant organisations for stricter government enforcement mechanisms and an improved labour inspectorate in the post-Covid 19 economy.

Equally important in the future is the need to revisit the concept of social dialogue. Such dialogue needs to review restrictive immigration laws that exclude migrants from enjoying labour rights and benefits.

Most importantly though, the health crisis allowed the revival of some long-standing struggles such as the call for a universal basic income grant, the demands of the food sovereignty campaign (for the right to access healthy food produced in an ecologically and sustainable way), and the demands of social cohesion campaigns which work towards the solidarity of all workers including the unemployed and migrants.

Analyses and insight from a working class perspective!

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