The recently concluded National Minimum Wage agreement at Nedlac represents a partial victory for the workers and also signifies the first step towards the attainment of a living wage. The NMW is a product of an arduous and ongoing struggle for a living wage by workers and their federation COSATU, since the 1980’s. The workers in this country have waited long enough for the national minimum wage. Sixty years ago the Freedom Charter called for a National Minimum Wage (NMW) as one of its key demands. The Freedom Charter stated that there shall be a: forty-hour working week, national minimum wage, paid annual leave and sick leave for all workers, and maternity leave on full pay for all working mothers.
Workers have managed to defeat the fear mongering, untruths and outright propaganda by a well funded lobby group that did everything to mislead the people, and blackmail government into abandoning the idea of a minimum wage. This once again reinforces our perspective that unless the working class raises itself to a hegemonic position in key sites of power, and strengthens its capacity to mobilise and fight, the envisaged economic transformation will never happen. The struggle for a Living Wage is a long and difficult one, which includes the struggle for affordable basic services, transport and food, and decent wages and working conditions and will only be achieved through the collective power of workers.
The most recent developments in the country have reinforced the importance of a meaningful National Minimum Wage. The recently released Labour Market Dynamics, published by Stats SA, reveal that 50% of workers in South Africa earned below R3100 in 2015. This reinforces the findings of the Wits National Minimum Wage Research Initiative that over 50% of full time workers (or 5.5 million workers) earn wages, which are too low to bring them and their dependants out of poverty. This is what has motivated the federation to fight for the National Minimum Wage needs to be pitched at a level, where it is able to address this disgrace of working poverty, and the unacceptably high levels of wage inequality in our country.
While the figure of R20 and hour still falls short of the federation’s proposed figure of R4 500 a month and does not address the minimum living standards of an average South African household; it offers workers a decent starting salary base. This will give workers building blocks to put together a solid foundation towards a living wage and will have a material impact on improving the wages of half of South African workers, or 6 million of our brutally exploited workers. Many workers like farm workers under FAWU, petrol attendants under Numsa, security Guards under SATAWU, Textile Workers under SACTWU, Retail Workers under SACCAWU and other non unionised vulnerable workers will benefit immensely from this deal.
It is totally obvious that a NMW is not a silver bullet by itself but needs to be combined with developmental labour market and economic policies, which tackle the cheap labour basis of our. A meaningful National Minimum Wage to be effective needs to be accompanied by a new wage policy, which begins to recognise the dignity of every worker in our society, and overcomes the legacy of apartheid wage structures. We also need to ensure that the NMW is linked to a plan to extend comprehensive social security. It is indisputable that, we inherited a legacy of an apartheid wage structure that was never addressed and that our economic system is not fully transformed and still has features of colonial and racial capitalism.The ANC 2014 Manifesto proposed comprehensive collective bargaining, state incentives, employment equity, and the national minimum wage as a package of mechanisms to transform the apartheid economy wage structure to promote decent wages and decent work.
There have been some pessimistic voices that have argued that a legislated national minimum wage will be bad for employers. But most studies have shown that adopting a minimum wage and paying workers better salaries in general makes businesses to operate more efficiently and employees to work a lot harder than usual. Higher and decent wages lead to more content employees, who stay with the business a little longer, and reduce staff turnover and training costs that go with hiring new employees.
Some have vehemently argued that a minimum wage will cost the economy jobs and raise the levels of unemployment. This is not supported by any hard evidence at all. In the US, a study that was done by banking giant Goldman Sachs of the 13 states, which have raised their minimum wage found that “the states where the minimum wage went up had faster employment growth than the states where the minimum wage remained at its 2013 level.”
Detailed research has been done by progressive researchers on the prospects for a NMW in South Africa, and labour in alliance with community has placed detailed proposals on the table based both on extensive analysis of the international experience, as well as detailed consideration of the South African wage structure and the conditions facing workers. COSATU is proud of its the work done by labour, communities and other progressive NGO’s to move both government and big business away from the ridiculously low level of R1258 per month that they had previously proposed. Credible institutions like Wits have produced a research that disproves the propaganda that the introduction of a R3500 minimum wage will have major negative effects on the economy. The idea behind the minimum wage is that it should make an effective contribution to a wage policy, which tackles the obscene levels of wage inequality still prevalent in our wage structure. Labour will ensure that this minimum wage will afford all workers a basic level of dignity and in its design and legislative formulation; we shall ensure that it supports and reinforces collective bargaining.
The huge task is to ensure that it counters potential abuse by employers, and legislate against the downward variation of existing agreements, which are higher than the National Minimum Wage. COSATU is adamant that the National Minimum Wage should be used as a springboard for a Living Wage Campaign in all sectors. The International Labour Organisation is very clear that the objective of the minimum wage is to reduce poverty by establishing a generally applicable lower limit under which wages are not permitted to fall. The fixing of such a general minimum wages normally is associated with the view that all workers, as a matter of right, ought to receive protection against unacceptably low wages.
COSATU will remain vigilant and shall continuously push to ensure that this starting figure is combined with a firmly agreed medium term target and that here are decent above inflation annual increases to progressively achieve this target. There has to be some compliance mechanisms and effective sanctions in place to ensure that this NMW benefits the workers, otherwise it will be a meaningless exercise.
by Bheki Ntshalintshali – General secretary of COSATU