Prof. C. M. Rogerson

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 11

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The South African construction industry is a potentially critical actor in post-apartheid reconstruction. The reasons include its linkages with other sectors, its growth-generating characteristics and its potential for adopting labour-intensive techniques for a wide range of products.

The release in 1998 of the South African Government's Green Paper on the construction sector has focused attention on the creation of an enabling environment for the growth of the industry, the organization and working of the construction economy, and the sector's roles in national reconstruction. The building construction sector is also fundamental to housing delivery in urban reconstruction and in the economic empowerment of historically disadvantaged communities. In many respects, therefore, the construction sector is at the cutting edge of post-apartheid economic and social development.

The Green Paper suggests that the construction sector can play a meaningful role in addressing the current unemployment crisis in South Africa. Overall, the industry employs about 450,000 people, a figure that is currently in decline as a result of economic recession and high interest rates. Some have suggested that its potential as an employment generator is also being undermined by the employment practices of construction companies involved in the industry.

International migrants (many of them undocumented) from neighbouring Southern African Development Community (SADC) states are known to cluster in the construction sector of South Africa's major urban centres. Several questions arise:

This research report for SAMP is the first systematic investigation into the role of foreign migrants in the South African construction sector. The research focused on international migrants on the Witwatersrand, especially Johannesburg. This area has been a magnet for incoming migrant workers over the last decade and the penetration of non-South African labour into the construction sector has proceeded furthest in this area.

Two sets of interviews were conducted during the period November 1997 to March 1998: (a) interviews with representatives of 23 construction companies, including some of the country's largest enterprises as well as a selection of smaller enterprises, many engaged in subcontracting; and (b) interviews with nearly 70 foreign construction workers from three different countries in the SADC.

This publication reports on the growing absorption of non-South African workers into the construction sector. This phenomenon is inseparable from global trends and the changing labour practices of the local construction industry, especially informalization and the growth of flexible sub-contracted work.

The report covers the following issues:

The growing presence of foreign migrant workers in the South African construction sector is part of a longstanding global trend. The international construction industry is characterized by a pattern of segmented labour markets, casual forms of employment and by the extensive use of subcontracted work. All these open the door to migratory workers.

To date, Africa has played only a marginal role in international migrant flows for construction work. Although the South African construction industry is one of the few African examples of such population movement, it clearly mirrors longstanding international patterns of migrant construction labour to many developed countries, and the economies of Asia and the Middle East.

Unpredictability and unevenness in construction demand produces phases of rapid growth and decline. This encourages many firms to adopt more flexible production and labour strategies. Subcontracting now forms an integral part of the construction process in contemporary South Africa. Subcontractors are particularly involved in the employment of foreign migrants.

The degree of incorporation of foreign migrants is clearly uneven across the sector. No cases were found of companies only employing foreign migrants. In more established construction companies, the labour complement falls into two groups.

First, there is a core of skilled construction workers working on a relatively secure and long-term basis. Second, there are groups of causal or temporary labourers hired on short-term contract, often as general labourers. The proportion of international migrants is highest among temporary employees.

Foreign labour is particularly important to construction enterprises engaged in large volumes of subcontracted work. In South Africa's larger construction enterprises, there appears to be minimal or limited direct employment of foreign labourers.

The South African construction sector does not attract migrants from as wide a range of source countries as other sectors. Only four countries are the major suppliers: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana. Of these, Mozambique is clearly dominant. The survey found that:

The key reasons that employers gave for choosing foreign labourers were productivity, inherent skills and training, and the more disciplined character of foreign workers. Foreign migrants are commonly viewed as more "hard-working," disciplined and honest than South Africans. Employers claim that there is little or no differential in payment levels between South African and foreign workers, although there are hidden savings through unpaid benefits.

In common with other foreigners working in South Africa, the construction workers were frequent victims of anti-immigrant sentiment and behaviour from South Africans. On site, there were few problems or tension between South African and foreign construction workers. Given that most companies employ a mixed workforce, working relationships at the bottom end of the labour market are reasonable good and so not appear to be a recipe for major conflict and conflagration.

Many were more negative about their treatment by the state. There were tales of repeated arrest and deportation. In one case, this had happened over 10 times. Other workers mentioned problems with the South African police, including theft of their possessions and beatings.

This report draws the following conclusions and policy recommendations: