Finding jobs on the roadside

Looking for work – men on the side of the
road.
(Image: Men on the Side of the Road)

The organised Men on the Side of the
Road sites are easily recognised by their
bright yellow banners.
(Image: Masixole Feni)

Jennifer Stern

South Africa has an unemployment rate of 38.3%, including those who have given up any attempt to find jobs. For those who haven’t, the only recourse is often short-term or casual labour – standing on the side of the road waiting for odd jobs. It’s highly insecure, but better than nothing.

Casual labour is a strong tradition in South Africa, with informally designated sites in cities across the country known by both employers and job seekers, where unemployed men gather in the mornings hoping to get a job for the day.

But it’s also been fraught with problems. The sites would have no toilets or drinking water so residents and businesses would complain to the police. But others would react with kindness by handing out soup and bread to job seekers. While the gesture was appreciated, all the men really wanted was a job.  So in 2000 a church group running soup kitchens approached charity worker Charles Maisel – and that was the start of Men on the Side of the Road (MSR).

MSR started off by supplying toilets and water to a couple of sites, and working on job creation.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Maisel says. “It was a pilot. We were trying to work out the model.”

Unfortunately, the harassment of job seekers increased after the sites become more organised.

“There had always been harassment,” he says “but when we came on board it started getting worse.

“After a lot of trying to negotiate with the communities and the police, we got a High Court order so the police couldn’t harass the men anymore.”

The court order stated that it was the duty of the municipality to assist job seekers, and that the police were not to harass job seekers in specified locations.

“We didn’t have much money at the time,” Maisel says, “but this was a major victory. It was a big thing. It legitimised job seeking on the side of the road.”

Some of the men couldn’t get work because they didn’t have tools, so the next part of the project was a campaign to get the public to donate second-hand tools.

“That really got us on the map,” Maisel says. “We got about 50 000 tools over two years. People sent tools from Holland, the UK, all over.

But the most important result of the campaign, says Maisel, is that it made people aware of the problem – and the solution.

“What’s interesting is that now, when anyone in the media is looking for an image to portray unemployment, they use a picture of men on the side of the road,” he says. “It’s become a symbol. Our biggest success is making the so-called invisibles visible. They are not beggars, they are genuine job-seekers.”

A challenge was determining how many casual workers were out there.

“We didn’t know how big the problem was, and we didn’t know how many sites there were. So we linked up with the Human Sciences Researches Council and the University of South Africa. They said they’d do a census of how many sites exist countrywide.”

The researchers found that there were roughly 1 000 sites across South Africa.

“A thousand sites, with about 100 people per site, means about 100 000 people per day. But with different people every day it’s probably about 300 000 people in total that use the sites. The numbers have remained basically static over the years.”

With the pilot programme complete and the size of the problem determined, it was time to move on to the next stage.

“After the census we knew what we were talking about. We identified needs. We needed to do training – of males between 15 and 60. And from the training, we moved on to job placement. And then the sites needed to be organised with cards and registration.”

To be registered, each job seeker needs to produce a photograph, some form of valid ID, and any references. Their skills and qualifications are noted, and they are given registration cards that identify them as bona fide work seekers. Each worker is put on the central database, available on MSR’s website.

Peter Kratz, MSR’s director, explains how it works. “Because the database lists skills, qualifications and work history, we’ve taken away the anonymity of the individual, and created a track record that is available to potential employers.

“So anyone wanting to employ someone can register on the website and peruse the database,  send a request for a worker through the site, in which case we’ll call them back, or they can call 0861 WORKER.

“And then we arrange which site they can pick them up from.

“Some employers will still simply arrive and pick people up but it’s so much more efficient if they pre-arrange it,” Katz continues. “We can put together a team quite effectively. We’ve got people with all kinds of skills, brick layers, carpenters, gardeners, fork lift drivers, welders, you name it.”

With more than 10 000 workers registered on their database, MSR placed about 6 500 members in almost 120 000 work days in 2008. MSR is a registered non-profit organisation, and do not charge for the placement services. Employers pay the men directly, and they keep everything they earn.

Some of those day placements have led to permanent employment.

“There have been some great success stories,” says Katz. “One man, Vuyisile Dyolotana, started standing on the side of the road looking for work and then, though MSR, got training from Stodel’s Nursery. That resulted in a permanent job with a landscaping business and, before long, he’d branched out and started his own landscaping business.”

So far, MSR have 14 organised sites in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Pretoria and George.  They’re easy to spot. They’re usually at major intersections, and they are marked by bright yellow banners.

So the men do still stand on the side of the road, but now many of them are standing there waiting for a specific prearranged job, so it’s a far less stressful process.

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