- People who watch cars and help customers in malls often pay a significant portion of the tips they receive to an “agency.”
- Daily charges can be as high as R50 per day and any shortfall must be made up the following day.
- We asked Jon McGowan, sole proprietor of one such company, to explain how the business model works. In response, we received threats of legal action.
In almost every mall and mall, people help customers push carts and pack groceries in the trunk of their car, help customers park, and ensure their vehicles are safe while shopping. they do their shopping. They survive on tips from buyers. In some malls, these “customer assistants” have separate clothes, which they usually have to buy from the company watching them.
The Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) says only registered security guards can guard cars. The “car guards” have therefore been renamed “customer truck assistants”. For convenience, we will refer to “customer assistants” as car guards.
Although the business has been around for decades, most shoppers don’t know that in many cases car sitters are paying for the “privilege” of being allowed to collect tips. And if the tips they receive that day fall below the daily “rent” – around R30-50 for a day shift, R15-25 for a night shift – they have to pay the shortfall on the next day’s income. And in many cases, if they take a day off, they still have to pay the fees. We’ve spoken to guards who say they work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
GroundUp has been told that to secure a place in some malls, a ‘purse’ of between R1,500 and R4,000 must be prepaid to a business. The “car guards” we spoke to told us that they are not registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund and that they have never seen a work contract. They have no job security and receive no social assistance of any kind.
A car-sitter management company works as a customer assistant, assigning places and collecting rent from the men. (We found no women in this work.) The sole proprietor is Jon Derek McGowan.
McGowan’s company is the ‘car guard’ agency for a number of shopping centers and malls in the Western Cape, including Brackenfell, Parow and previously Zevenwacht (Blackheath).
When the Covid pandemic hit, McGowan sent letters in April 2020 to ‘car guards’, saying they were indeed ‘key staff and personnel’, and an ‘essential service’ and should therefore be permitted to continue working during the level 4 lockdown.
“You are only allowed to work on the site if you have paid your daily R30 deposit,” a guard at the Parow shopping center told us.
“I have to eat little and make sure that at the end of the day I have the daily deposit of R30. We stay up all day in the cold, rain and even if we are tired, we are expected to smile, wave and be friendly with customers in order to get something. If you don’t get a tip that day, you tell the supervisor, then the next day after work, you pay double,” he said.
In 2021, a refugee organization, Africa Revival (ARF), took McGowan to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) on behalf of 75 “car guards”, almost all Burundian refugees. They argued that they were exploited and should be treated as employees. Thirteen of them had worked for more than five years, and there were individuals who had worked for eight and ten years, according to CCMA documents.
The CCMA case was withdrawn. It was apparently because the guards had no paper proof that they had paid McGowan.
ARF Reverend Ngendakumana said they represented 25 guards at Brackenfell Mall, who said they paid McGowan’s company R30 a day, and 50 guards at Zevenwacht Mall. When fees were increased for Zevenwacht, a number of them protested. For this they were fired.
Burundian car attendants estimated that they earned R3,000 gross per month, out of which they had to pay daily costs. This is consistent with academic research on this subject.
Research in Durban that profiled ten guards at a free shopping center found they earned an average of R108 a day, on which they paid the guard R35, leaving them with R73.
It’s unclear what the “car guards” get in return for these daily “bay fees”. Our efforts to obtain explanations from the agencies that manage them as well as from the management of the shopping centers were in vain. But in a 2014 article in Next city an official from one of the agencies reportedly said his company ensures that car guards are “easily identifiable, well-prepared, well-managed and accountable”.
David Esau, Provincial Chief Inspector for the Western Cape Department of Labour, said a survey is being carried out at all sites to determine whether ‘car guards’ are considered employees or volunteers, and will they are employees, what type of contract did they enter into.
“Car guards” at Brackenfell Shopping Center wear vests and jackets with the CS logo. They say they pay 150 rand for the vest and 250 rand for the jacket. One guard, who couldn’t afford the jacket, was working in shirt sleeves with just the vest.
In email correspondence, McGowan said he ran an “honest, respectful and reputable business.” He said: “The business model has been around for over 25 years. Everyone seems to know and understand how the basic floor plan works, except those who wish to cause malice, slander and/or trouble to others who not only enjoy working in a company established as customer assistants, but oppose those who attempt to undermine those who run an honest, respectful and trustworthy business”.
He said his staff were happy and treated well. He also threatened to sue GroundUp for defamation.
He did not answer our questions asking for clarification on the business model.
François van der Merwe, director of operations at the Parow Center, said he could not comment because he did not know what the arrangement was between McGowan and the guards. “Mr. McGowan (Customer Assist) is doing a service for mall customers,” he said.
Venessa Roux, Acting Property Manager at Brackenfell Center, said: “Unfortunately, we cannot share any information with you as it would constitute a breach of our agreement with the relevant service provider…Notwithstanding the above, we believe these charges are untrue and we reserve all of our legal rights and remedies if you refer to us or the name of Brackenfell Centre.
Jacques Erasmus, Managing Director of Excellerate Real Estate Services (Pty) Ltd, said: “McGowan was the former owner of Customer Trolley Assistants and no longer holds that position.
He explained the current situation to Zevenwacht as follows: “Customer trolley assistants are casual workers who have freely chosen to work in the mall knowing that tipping is at the discretion of the customer.
“As a service provider, Nogada [the current company] has to pay the mall a rental on a monthly basis as a tenant to provide services in the parking areas and Nogada simply provides the customer cart assistants with the opportunity to support their families,” Erasmus said.
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