South African Reality Check – And This One Goes Out to the Tourism Industry on the Whole

Wasting precious resourcesOkay, I’m not going to even bother editing. I’m just going to write this out. Because I’m pretty positive if I read what I write, I’ll go back through everything to edit it down and make it nice and neat and it will lose all semblance of the vitriol this post deserves. I’m not even going to apologise for calling these places out. It’s appalling what they do, and everyone should be aware of what’s really going on  in this industry.

Without further ado –

Let me tell you a little secret that many of the lodges in the tourism industry of South Africa don’t want you to know. Slave labour is alive and well, and it’s serving you your breakfast at that fancy schmancy lodge you’re paying a grand a night per person to stay at. Want to know what your host is getting paid? Or your guide? Or your room attendant?

Let me give you a little insider breakdown, so you know what actually happens in the hospitality industry here in South Africa. Guides get paid a paltry few grand a month (in Rands, don’t forget). And when I say a few grand, I mean 3-4k on the higher end AT MOST 5-STAR lodges!!! They rely on tips, which the lodge doesn’t tell the guests about, probably because they don’t want the guests to feel obliged (they have, after all, just shelled out two month’s salary to stay at said swanky lodge), and they also don’t want people asking why gratuities – which, by definition, aren’t required – are so necessary for their staff. I don’t know. Maybe because they don’t want people to know that all the money guests pay goes to the owners of the lodge so they can drive their top-of-the-line Land Cruisers and fly their private helicopters and send their children to the top boarding schools in the world? Just a guess.

Staff get paid pittance, and the lodges use the excuse that they ‘provide for housing and food’ while staff is working. The important part of that sentence is ‘while staff is working’, and I’ve heard every excuse in the book as to why they suddenly CAN’T provide decent food and housing, or food and housing at all. The housing is usually appalling (I’ve seen AND lived in it first-hand; I know). You live in a room, sometimes with its own bathroom, sometimes not, sometimes with a roommate, sometimes not. You have no way of keeping food, so you have to rely on the lodge to provide it. And they don’t. You often miss meals because you are too busy working to get food “at the required meal time”, and you end up going to bed hungry. At breakfast you get cereal and milk. Ask for anything else and you are out of line. They let you fend for yourself. God help you if the kitchen staff doesn’t like you…

The last lodge I worked at paid me R5k a month, and I was supposed to share in the communal tips the lodge received. The owners, however, had not paid out tips since April of that year (and I started working there in August). I left in October, and tips still hadn’t been paid out to staff. The owners took the money and pocketed it themselves.

At this particular lodge (which is supposed to be 5-star, by the way), we had to buy our own food, pay for our own electricity, pay for our own internet access, and they even tried to force us to pay for tea, coffee and water. I’m not joking. This was a lodge that often didn’t have running water, period. Which meant there were days when I had nothing to drink unless I bought it from the lodge. And more often than not, I had no water to shower with. I worked with cheetah, cleaning out cat enclosures and quite literally shoveling shit. But after a long, sweating day, I often could not even so much as wash my hands. And my housing at least had a private bathroom, even though it usually didn’t function. More than half the staff didn’t have that ‘luxury’.

For the first week, I lived in a room. I had no way to cook or feed myself. And I was given problems by the owners, who resented that the kitchen had to feed me until I could be provided with proper housing. And my place was a palace compared to the staff quarters for the non-white staff. And yes, it was certainly split white/non-white. The majority of the staff was not even South African (me included), and they lived in two other areas. Their rooms didn’t have kitchens or even bathrooms. They had communal bathrooms. Down the road. Again, this is not abnormal. It’s apparently acceptable to treat the people who keep your lodge running like this.

I should also point out that they ‘encourage’ you to leave on your time off (which is another issue altogether, but we’ll get to that later), which politely means you HAVE to leave the premises and find somewhere to stay for two weeks. Hopefully you have your own means of transportation. Otherwise, you have to find a way to get to a bus and then go…where? Pay rent for an apartment that you aren’t in for 6 weeks at a time? Go stay with mom and dad or some other family member, wherever they may be? And all that money you get paid is immediately down the toilet just getting you where you need to go, because you have NO HOME.

Now let’s chat about ‘time off’, shall we? You work in cycles in the tourism industry. Most places I know of do six weeks on, two weeks off. That’s 6 weeks straight, 7 days a week, and usually 14- to 16-hour days (in some cases longer). Then you get your two weeks off, of which two of those days are spent getting wherever it is that you call home. So really, you get twelve days off. Now do the math. There are 52 weeks in a year, which means 52 weekends, right? That’s 104 days you would normally have off in any other industry, just for weekends – not including holidays, vacation days, etc. Do the math for a lodge cycle. You get 84 days off. That’s IT! That’s 20 days LESS than there are weekend days in the year. AND you don’t get paid extra for working on a holiday, and you don’t get holidays off. And some lodges don’t give you any extra days for actual leave, which is not only wrong, IT’S ILLEGAL! And yet it continues to happen. And even better? I’ve worked in a place that tried to take away people’s leave days. They would overbook and understaff and then expect employees to give up their leave time, WITH NO COMPENSATION.

Here’s another fun tidbit. My fiancé, who now works at one of these shitshows, is not allowed to have me visit him unless I use one of his bed nights. Bed nights are nights given to staff so that they can have guests come stay at the lodge. Staff get one per month or more. It might seem like a cool perk except THEY GET ONE A MONTH. AND if a room at the lodge isn’t available, I get to shack up with my fiancé and his roommate in their little tiny hovel AND THEY STILL TAKE HIS BED NIGHTS AWAY FROM HIM! So, essentially, unless my fiancé comes to see me, I don’t see him for months at a time.

People ask me why I don’t get a job where he and I can work together. Been there, done that. After working in that industry and seeing what I’ve seen, I’ve had enough of it. I won’t go back. And he doesn’t get paid enough to come visit me. Which means I spend most of my year not seeing my fiancé. Great situation, isn’t it?

When staff have tried to form unions to ensure they get paid a decent wage and are treated better, they’ve been threatened by lodges (who have all the money, so it’s a tough battle to win). They’ve been fired. They’ve been bad-mouthed by the lodge (which is also illegal, by the way) and banned from working in the industry. All kinds of bad things came of people asking to treated decently.

I write this not because I’m lazy, greedy and don’t want to work, and the people who work in this industry are also not lazy, greedy or don’t want to work. I write this because this industry is absolutely disgusting and people in it are afraid to speak up. Government certainly isn’t doing anything about it. There is no legislation that makes it mandatory for these lodges to provide their staff with higher wages, no legislation that denies them the ability to use their staff like slave labour, no legislation that protects these people and requires that they have decent housing, food and pay. And somehow the lodges manage to get out of the legal requirement that employees work a maximum number of days per year, which is being grossly overstepped in this industry.

I get a lot of people saying to me, “Well, you know. That’s the industry. If you don’t like it, get out.” Really? So, you think the thing to do is to run away and let it continue happening? Because by saying that, you are perpetuating it. You are saying it’s okay; just don’t make it your problem, right? No, it’s not okay.

Lodges spring up all the time. Lodges that purport to be any number of stars, though they more often than not pose as five-star, yet don’t offer anywhere near a five-star experience. They sure charge for it, though.

These lodges do not deserve to be in business. They are using up valuable resources and space and not providing anything in return, except money to line their own pockets. They often employ people who are not South African (me, case in point), so they aren’t contributing to the South African community. They spend more money on marketing than on paying their staff and keeping up their places.

People need to know what goes on in this industry, and something needs to be done. I’m tired of seeing friends of mine work their tails off, hoping to scrape by on tips, and then having guests not tip them because they don’t know any better. And the fact of the matter is, the guests shouldn’t HAVE to tip these guys for them to be able to make a living. In some cultures, tips are considered rude. How dare these lodges lay the onus on the guests, who are already doing their part by paying to stay there!

I’m not saying people shouldn’t tip. But I am saying that the lodges are making out like bandits, not paying their staff enough, and taking no responsibility for the fact that they take total advantage of their staff. While I know I am only one person, and I’m also aware that there probably aren’t a whole lot of people reading this, I do hope those who do read it will share it. This needs to go viral in a big way. This practice needs to stop. And I need you guys to help me. Please consider passing this along.

Thanks for listening to me vent.


All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa | Leave a comment

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