The REAL Cost of Thatching; The Men on the Ground

Thatching is classed as a "green" roofing product due to the natural, organic nature of the majority of the materials used in the roof, the way they are harvested and applied to the roof. This latter point - the way the thatch is applied to the roof - is worth looking into a little bit more deeply. Thatching a roof is very labor intensive and uses almost 100% man-power as opposed to using machinery to build or make, and fit it. When asking for a quotation for a new roof, or for thatch to be maintained, it is very easy to forget this aspect of the work - the team of workers who will be doing the work, and their position in the construction company.

It is worth considering (and asking the contractor about) their team of laborers and thatchers to ensure that you are not supporting maltreatment of staff. The following points need to be considered: 
  1. Are the team paid at least minimum wage and are extra skills and responsibilities taken into consideration in the pay scheme? It is common practice in the construction industry for contractors to subcontract a local team to do the work and agree to pay a square meter rate (e.g., the job is 100 square meters and the subcontractor will earn R 500.00 per square meter not matter how many laborers there are onsite, how long the job takes and a number of other variables) - this practice promotes the subcontractor rushing to finish jobs and under-paying their hard working staff to maximize profits (and in the end, a very poor job is done). It is often the case in this instance that the main subcontractor is not paying the laboring staff well and/or at all.
  2. Are the contractor, the team, and yourself, covered in the case of a disaster or accident on site? Ask the contractor for proof of this insurance and proof of good standing with the compensation commissioner.
  3. Are there adequate health and safety regulations, training, awareness and practice on site? 
  4. Do the laborers have contracts - permanent or temporary? If subcontractors are being used bear in mind that the main contractor often offers little to no stability in the availability of work and when their laborers will be hired (or fired!). They often use a different team of laborers every time there is a job and they don't know the staff. This can lead to many problems on site from inexperienced workers making mistakes to theft of property. The root of the problem is that the main contractor doesn't want to offer permanent positions to their staff and take responsibility for them and their employment rights.
Large thatching and construction tenders for government and other institutes ask for proof of all of the above: proof of good standing with the Compensation Commissioner, proof of VAT clearance, insurance, health and safety training and practices. They aim to safe-guard themselves as well as the people working on site.

These issues may seem to seem like nothing to do with you as the client of a thatching contractor but realistically, they are. Supporting crooked contractors who do not respect the rights of their staff is criminal; it is a reason why there is so much inequality in Southern Africa. Also, consider the contractor who allows this to happen on his or her site; who treats staff poorly, under pays, dodges SARS and under protects their workers (likely along with a whole host of other underlying problems in the business like cutting corners in jobs and buying cheap materials). In a country (and more specifically in the Eastern Cape) where we are still battling for equal human rights to be put into practice day-to-day, where unskilled and semi-skilled laborers are often paid a pittance, on temporary contracts (if given a contract at all) and totally unprotected; it is up to us to make a stand and stop this practice. 

You would not expect to get a free hair cut in the finest salon in town (unless it was a bad one!), so don't expect to get a free, quality, thatch roof unless you're willing to support corrupt contractors and mistreat the men on the ground.