Several family-owned restaurants owners talk about the reasons they hire different nationalities who have different skills
RICHARD, human resources manager of several family-owned restaurants in Cape Town: “We always look locally first, but where scarce skills are required — like baking or cooking — or applicants don’t meet criteria, we do hire foreigners.
“The reason so many foreigners find work as waiters is that their English is good and they have an ability to talk to customers and make them feel comfortable. They also meet other skills requirements like literacy, numeracy and computer literacy.
“I don’t believe foreigners work harder. It depends on the individual, but we have found a foreigner is more likely to work continuously without taking time off.
“They are here to work, so there are fewer disruptions. South Africans are more likely to go absent without leave without following procedures to attend family affairs in the rural areas and so on.
“I’ve had lots of problems with foreigners and just as many with locals. A lot of them come with skills, but many exaggerate their skills and their CVs don’t check out. In places like Zimbabwe, Congo, Malawi there are five-star trained waiters who are very tourist-focused, who come looking for work.
“We require permits from asylum seekers and that these be renewed whenever they expire. We require a passport. If people’s documents expire or their application for asylum fails, then their employment is terminated.
“We have regular inspections by the Department of Labour.
“It’s not true to say that South Africans have a bad attitude. Foreigners also bring risks; often they are responsible for card skimming and scams like those. It is also not true to say that foreigners are less likely to go the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration when aggrieved — that hasn’t been my experience.
“All our waiters are on the same pay, with slight differences if they have been here longer.”
MARK, Cape Town restaurant owner: “We haven’t specifically targeted foreign nationals for employment. Pretty much all our employees are local except for two Zimbabweans and one Congolese — out of 20 people.
“The Congolese guy was a barman I met at another restaurant and he was just so cool and amazing that I gave him my number. He walked in the door and now he is our barista and barman.
“The Zimbabwean happened to walk through the door three years ago and had excellent references from several people I know in the business. They all strongly recommended him so I took him and now he is my manager and runs the place when we aren’t there. He had experience; he’s on the level and he’s a great guy.
“But there are no hard and fast generalisations: Zimbabweans do tend to be well educated, their English and their elocution is excellent; they are computer literate; they are worldly. You have to be choosy about what kind of person serves your client; they must be able to make them feel at home; explain the menu well and so on.
“On wages — it is totally untrue that in most restaurants foreigners are paid less, but I think it does happen in some places that people are very badly paid. There is a restaurant near us that employs only foreigners and looking at that business I shudder to think what they are paid.
“We insist on original documents from home affairs.”
MOHAMMED, Somali refugee working in a tuck shop in Mitchells Plain:
“When I came to SA, it was mostly by walking. I haven’t heard from my parents in Somalia since I left.
“The Mubarak tuck shop belongs to a relative, who owns several tuck shops and who bought it from Faizal, a fellow Somali.
“Faizal was the first foreigner to establish a tuck shop in Beacon Valley. Now there is a Somali or Bangladeshi shop on every corner. The neighbours, a local family, also started a shop with his encouragement.
“But Faizal said they didn’t know how to do business. If they felt like closing the shop they did. They didn’t wake up early. Now they are renting it to Bangladeshis.”
Low mark-ups, high volumes, long hours and a willingness to give credit were key to Faizal’s success.
“Faizal is now in the US. He earned refugee status in the land of opportunity.
“The shop sells the kinds of goods people in this neighbourhood need: small plastic packets of cornflakes, sugar, coffee or tea for R1; loose cigarettes; and single disposable nappies.
“I also sell mielie meal, baby food, tinned food, sweets, cold drinks and bread.
“My prices are very good. There’s a Pick n Pay just two blocks down the road, but I can sell many things for much cheaper than them.”
GEORGES, Congolese waiter, Cape Town: “I’m a challenging person — even when it comes to my rights. I’ve studied South African law, so when it comes to the companies I’ve worked for I can tell you there is discrimination against foreigners.
“It is mostly used when you do something wrong or they do something wrong to you — then they use the word ‘if’. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to stay if you don’t want to.
“On the wages: everyone gets the same. But then when you get reviewed, some get increases, others not.
“They know you are desperate. Theoretically they say to me, you are the best, but they use me because I am good. If you are good they might even promote you, but they don’t pay you much more.
“They will say, ‘We are doing you a favour’; but it could be that you are an asset to the country.
“I left Congo in 2005. I was in my final year at university in Lubumbashi. Students were protesting against the government. There were some killings; some students died and some students killed soldiers.
“They arrested all the young men. I was arrested and paid bribes to escape and crossed into Zambia.
“Three of us took the same road. The two stayed in Zambia; I came here because I wanted to be far from Congo.
“Before I got arrested I was running a small business with my cousin, buying wholesale nuts and reselling them, so I had some money. I came through two countries by paying truck drivers, until I got to Joburg. The truck driver was continuing to Cape Town so I went with him.
“I slept outside somewhere near Epping; I didn’t know anyone. I started washing cars and then became a car guard. I had basic English from school but I am good with languages. Someone advised me to read newspapers, which I still do. That is how I improved my English skills.
“Then I got a job as a security guard doing night shift at a big hotel. I studied during the day — did a call centre course and an admin course. My salary was R2,100.
“After that I got a job as a receptionist and my salary went up to R3,000. I worked there for four years. I did a business management course at the College of Cape Town.
“I went for some job interviews but as soon as they saw I was a refugee they said, ‘Sorry we can’t employ you.’
“I never lived in the township, so I can’t see the person whose house I might have taken. I live in town. I’ve been 10 years in SA and I have my refugee status.
“Most foreigners here look for work at the restaurants because they can’t get other work. Foreigners get employed in restaurants, in hotels. Yes, the wage is very small. South Africans do apply but they also consider the pay to be low. A foreigner who is desperate for a plate of food on his table will take it.
“We are not taking over SA, it is just a place that we have found refuge. South Africans should have their rights and benefits, but just be fair to everyone.”
PAMELA, Zimbabwean beauty therapist, Cape Town:
“I came to SA in 2009 to train as a beauty therapist. I applied for asylum seeker status when I got here. I did a six-month course as a nail technician in Durbanville, then I got work at a salon.
“The work is hard and so not everyone can do it. Your back can ache because you never sit in a chair. We work weekends and holidays and time off is during the week when everyone else is working.
“In 2010, I applied for the Zimbabwean special dispensation, so I have another two years until that ends. But I’ve heard if you have been here for nine years you can get permanent residence.
“South African girls also apply to the salon, but they don’t stay long. We have girls here from Zimbabwe who are teachers but they can’t get jobs teaching, so they work here.
“I can’t go back to Zimbabwe. There is nothing there. I don’t think Zimbabwe will get better. There is no work. My son is seven and he has only known SA.”
CYNTHIA, Zimbabwean teacher working as a farm worker in Worcester:
“I came to SA in search of employment in 2008. I’ve worked on the farms at De Doorns and Worcester and I’ve had a temporary job cleaning. I also tried selling things — socks, ties, comforters — but it wasn’t profitable.
“I’m a teacher by profession. I qualified in 2004. I taught for one year before I came to SA. The money was so little. I got 300 Zim (Zimbabwean) dollars a month. You can’t buy anything with that.
“I came here in search of greener pastures, but up until now I haven’t found anything. My work on the farms is just for a few months from October to December.
“I have a work permit but it is about to expire. I need to go back to Zimbabwe and renew it. It is a permit that I got at the border coming in. I got it from the Department of Home Affairs — you can get them for two years or four years. For two years it is R2,000.*
“I did apply at some schools for teaching jobs but I was very unlucky; there were no openings.”
* The work permit has probably been obtained illegally.