South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) welcomes the launch of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s war room but believes the parastatal missed an opportunity to assure its staff – women staff in particular – that it is concerned for their safety.
Launching the war room last Thursday, Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula outlined three focus areas – Service Recovery which involves the availability and reliability of trains and infrastructure; fast tracking the implementation of Modernisation Programme which aims to see Prasa spend its allocated capital expenditure toward the betterment of the system; and Safety Management which pertains to protecting the agency’s trains, railways, signaling and most importantly its commuters.
This is all well and good but we believe Prasa missed an opportunity to assure the people at the coalface of its challenges that it cares about their well-being. Daily, train drivers, both male and female, contend with Prasa’s aging infrastructure, faulty train sets, cable theft and manual authorisation due to the less than optimum signaling system. But unlike their male colleagues, women drivers often have to fend off society’s sexist beliefs including the ever-present threat of sexual violence.
Given the current state of Prasa’s operation, a train driver counts herself lucky if she is allocated a fully-functional train set twice during a five-day work week. What that means is for the remainder of week, she has to resign herself to fact the train she is driving will breakdown at some point. When that happens, she has to steel herself for the insults commuters hail at her as she leaves the drivers cabin to fix whatever mechanical failure has caused the breakdown. All drivers are trained on first-line maintenance and are expected to assess the extent of the problem before calling for back up.
It is while outside the confines of the driver’s cabin that these skilled women experience the harshest harassment. Frustrated with the delays, commuters often blame the driver. Incidentally, this is also the point at which sexist attitudes rear their ugly head. Drivers are often told the train is stuck because they cannot drive as they are women. Worse still, there are female commuters who hold the same view.
Scarier still is the prospect of a commuter mob ganging up on a lone driver. Last year’s horrific incident of commuters stripping a woman driver naked and dragging her to the bushes before security guards saved her is a haunting reminder of just how dangerous the job can be. In addition, female drivers are often subjected to inappropriate touching and unwanted comments about their bodies. Some drivers have been assaulted by commuters, while another was forced to skip a signal at gunpoint. As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, Prasa suspended the driver for skipping the signal even though he had informed the control centre. For all the abuse drivers suffer at the hands of commuters, they are routinely suspended if they retaliate or go against stipulated rules. So at any given point during what ordinarily would be considered a crisis, drivers are forced to weigh up personal safety against job security.
To mitigate the unfair conditions train drivers work under, workers demand the following:
For more details or media interviews contact:
Zanele Sabela, SATAWU Media Officer, 011 403 2077