Perplexed by the trend lately of grumpy cashiers and unfriendly clerks at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, last evening I picked up a takeaway dinner from a popular chain, and chatted to the lady behind the counter. She'd been on her feet behind the counter serving customers since 12 am. It was 9pm, and she was hungry and tired. When I asked her about staff meals, she told me they don't get those anymore.
That's strange, I thought, when I was at high school I also did the same job part-time and we used to get staff meals - to the point where the smell of that brand would actually put me off eating it for a while - but we got it. Yes, that was 24 years ago - but I was still rather shocked.
And I suppose you get paid minimum wage too, I asked the middle-aged lady. (Minimum wage for a cashier in SA is 15.96 ZAR per hour. That's 3111.96 ZAR per month. Back in the day I earned 4 ZAR per hour, but again, that was 24 years ago - and I was a teenager, at school, and living with my parents.) Yes, she said. And then while she's working a 12 hour shift at a "restaurant", she still has to buy her own meals and drinks from that. To give you an idea, a burger at the same restaurant costs between 30 and 40 ZAR - so that means if she wants to eat from the store during her shift, that will cost her between 2 to 3 hours work to pay for one meal and between 4 to 6 hours work for two meals, depending on the length of her shift.
Just then, some employees from the pizza shop next door came to buy dinner at her counter, since they also don't get staff meals. Pizza's are more expensive than burgers, costing anything between 45 and 90 ZAR for a small pizza, so I presume they came here because it was cheaper than buying from their employer.
I don't know how some people survive in this country. I know I couldn't make it on that kind of money every month, yet most of these workers have families to raise, living expenses, and they keep coming back, because work is scarce and there are so many unemployed people who will bite the hook baited with long hours and minimum wage...
When you think of the amount of turnover and profit made by most companies in this country - and especially the big chains, it's a shame that they pay their employees minimum wage and no more than that. What that really says is: "We're paying you minimum wage, because we're not allowed to pay you any less."
I really think businesses in SA need to look for their hearts and their souls, because they have lost them somewhere in the drive to make money, and perhaps even to survive the economy themselves. Even so, their income far outweighs their labor overheads... to the point where I think it becomes all about greed.
I dislike bad service as much as the next person... but the next time you wonder why the people behind the counter don't make you feel special as a customer, perhaps you should wonder if the person behind the counter feels like a human being, or like an appliance with a pulse, being maintained by a minimum wage.