Tenant Farming : 'Sweat Shops" / "Work Houses"

Compiled by Sayed-Iqbal Mohamed (Chairperson); Thembelani Adam Mncanywa (Deputy Chairperson) & Krubashen Moodley (Legal Team Co-ordinator) of the Organisation of Civic Rights (OCR)
Recent developments in Durban have shown that there is a growing “sweatshop industry”. The OCR has so far identified about 28 buildings. “Sweatshops” are buildings in which tenants are allowed to overcrowd, sometimes 16 – 20 people occupying a small room. These occupants are co-tenants or co-owners, sharing the exorbitant rentals. Other common features include absence of basic facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens, inadequate toilets, taps and electrical systems. In short, deplorable conditions with serious health and fire hazards.
Different groups and role-players have ascribed different names to buildings occupied by tenants for both residential and “commercial” (self-employment) purposes. Essentially, in Durban, these were buildings designed for commercial use, e.g. offices, warehouses and supermarkets, but in recent years have become vacant due to businesses closing down or relocating to suburbs. Durban local government authorities prefer the word “workhouses” to distinguish these from “sweatshops” in other provinces.
In Durban, tenants are self-employed and work and live in their respective small cubicles. A tenant of a sweatshop is often referred to as an “owner” of the cubicle / room because the other tenants living with him or her pay their pro rata share of the rental through the main (principal) tenant. The income from their micro businesses (such as sewing, repairing sewing machines, providing indigenous herbal remedies, “therapy” and other skills) belongs to them. In Gauteng, sweatshop tenants work and live on the premises as well, but they work for a landlord who controls all income.

In any event, the work environment and living conditions in Durban’s “workhouses” are similar to those of “sweatshops” in other provinces. People work and live in overcrowded conditions, literally sweating because of the claustrophobic conditions and labouring as slaves to pay exorbitant rentals (indirect income) to the landlord or in the case of Gauteng, tenants sweat through hard labour to generate direct income to the landlord who is also their employer.
1. Survival: Small informal business entrepreneurs locating to the city to survive the economic hardships. They require a place to store, manufacture and sell their goods. A place that would also provide accommodation and reduce the high travelling costs and other overheads.

2. Overall shortage of housing and facilities for creative, innovative “survivors” whose skills allow them to eke out a living to feed their families.

3. Greed: Unscrupulous, greedy landlords and owners have seized the opportunity of letting out the vacant commercial properties for residential accommodation or a combination of business and residential use. These properties have become vacant due to businesses closing down or relocating to suburbs. Their target: the poor and the poorest of the poor.

Size: The floor area is converted into a large number of small cubicles (“rooms”) usually by means of masonite or wooden partitioning. In some cases, existing flats are also converted into single rooms.

Rental: In this way, an enormous amount of revenue is generated or yielded every month. In most instances, the rental income from sweatshop tenants far exceeds the original income from the property that was strictly commercial in nature.

Rental structure: Approximately R50 per m2. This rate per m2 exceeds “A” grade commercial or up market residential accommodation in prime areas. It also excludes excellent basic facilities linked or integral to “A” grade commercial / residential properties.

Overcrowding: This is a common problem because landlords allow overcrowding to yield huge returns by way of rentals. Tenants are able to share the exorbitant rentals for a cubicle / room and to reduce individual overheads.

Fire Hazard: Materials used in the creation of the cubicles / rooms are not fire resistant. This, coupled with the fact that the electrical system in the building is not designed to service residential usage and in any event are in a poor state, poses a major fire hazard.

Electrical System: It must be realized that these partitioned rooms are used as the bedroom, kitchen, lounge and work area. Electricity is therefore inadequate because the original electrical system cannot meet residential demands. In addition, electricity is required for the use of small machines and other electrical apparatus. Some tenants are forced to use paraffin and gas cookers, further endangering their lives.

Lack of Basic Facilities: There are usually no bathing and ablution facilities. Inadequate toilets, with men and women forced to use the same toilets. Tenants are also forced to bathe within the toilet area. On average, there are two toilets per 80 people. In some buildings there is just one tap per 200 people with no bathrooms.

Maintenance: The landlords of sweatshops, commonly known as slumlords, do not carry out any maintenance, repair or renovation. In most cases the buildings were in a state of disrepair prior to converting them into sweatshops. The raison d'être of slumlords is maximising profits, without care about basic facilities needed, the conditions of the building or the plight of the tenants.