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Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  27 Jul 2009

EMPOWERMENT: Foreign Workers Discrimination


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New research from the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) has revealed that xenophobia may be rife within the South African workplace – and that many foreign workers, especially workers from other African countries, are suffering discrimination in silence.

The research, conducted by Professor Kurt April of the UCT GSB and his wife Amanda April of the UCT Social Development Department, is based on 243 interviews conducted in various South African workplaces, and is one of the first investigations into the experiences of foreign workers in South African organisations.

According to the study, a common theme from the interviews was that there are negative psychological effects which foreign employees experience in South Africa today. The findings suggest xenophobia is not uncommon and that most foreign workers have experienced some level of discrimination at work.

According to Professor April, the research shows that workers from other African countries face the most discrimination – and that such discrimination is much less, to none, for foreigners from Europe (especially White foreigners from Europe).

Based on the interviewee responses, the South African workplace is more accepting of and less psychologically damaging to foreign workers from Europe as opposed to foreign workers from other regions, especially Africa. This is because workers from Europe are seen as closer to the dominant senior management and executive class in South Africa,” he said.

Another key reaction that emerged from the research is that many foreign workers do not feel trusted by their management – and feel insecure as a result.

Interviewees often spoke of negative experiences involving their feelings of inadequacy, and their consequent need to (over) prove their ability and worth to those higher up in the organisational structure,” said Professor April.

As with most cases of xenophobia, many interviewees also claimed that cultural and language differences meant they were dehumanised to some extent – made to feel not as individuals, but as company workers and economic cogs in the machinery of big capital. This was particularly true in certain industries, such as manufacturing and production, where jobs require few qualifications and wages are relatively low.

These foreign interviewees stressed that companies regarded them as dispensable – taking the approach of ‘take it or leave it and somebody else will fill your shoes’.   Their responses indicate they are seen as human resources that can be over-utilised without having to invest in them,” said April.

While this feeling may also exist within South African workers – it seems the compounded effect of discrimination on the psyche of foreign workers means they are more likely to internalise the attitude and adopt a victimised mentality than are their South African counterparts in the same situation.

The research also suggests that affirmative action programmes are in fact adding to the absence of self-worth amongst foreign workers, said Professor April.

The arguably narrow focus of affirmative action programmes within the workplace simply exacerbates the situation, with many employers embracing diversity because it improves their local image and not necessarily because they feel it is morally right or necessary for competitive sustainability. Thus, foreign employees especially are often made to feel as if they should be grateful when they receive certain jobs, meaning that they subsequently feel undervalued as individuals.”

It also emerged from the interviews that female foreign workers more frequently reported feeling victimised than their male counterparts – signalling that gender discrimination is also still rampant within many South African workplaces. The same was often reported by gay or lesbian foreign employees – some of whom even reported being openly harassed by colleagues.

Derogatory, humiliating and abusive terms (which were said to, or about, them) were quoted by foreign interviewees, and it seems that a collective consciousness exists within the South African workplace that makes it acceptable to treat people in ways that are akin to treating them as objects and as animals – often likened to the names that they were, and are, called,” said Professor April.

It appears from this sample, that even though policies are in place to prevent work-based discrimination, entrenched racism and xenophobia persist quite widely, especially at the level of interpersonal relationships.”

The research is shortly to be published in a new international book entitled Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Work, under a chapter called “Reactions to discrimination: exclusive identity of foreign workers in South Africa”.

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