INSIDE LABOUR: Stories, facts and the minimum wage

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Everybody has stories.
The point is the deal with the facts behind those stories. That was a message
delivered at an annual management/union information sharing session in Cape
Town this month arranged by the Golden Arrow Bus Company.

That the message came from company CEO
Francois Meyer was irrelevant because it was true, and especially so in this
digital era. It is a time when we face deluges of fake news and opinion aimed
at furthering specific agendas and often based on nothing but prejudice.

We had a dose of this earlier in the
month when health minister Aaron Motsoaledi fanned xenophobic sentiment by
claiming that foreigners were flooding South African hospitals. Detailed
analysis showed this to be false.

But sometimes the published challenges
to claims made are just as problematic as the claims themselves. The announced
introduction of the long-awaited national minimum wage provided a classic
example.

On the one hand, it was widely hailed
as a step forward in the campaign to alleviate poverty and close the wage and
welfare. On the other, free market groups condemned it as a contribution to
greater job losses and the death knell for small businesses, which most workers
and their unions justifiably dismiss as false.

READ: National
Minimum Wage a step towards reducing inequality – Presidency

But many accepted the announcement by
President Cyril Ramaphosa implying benefits accruing to the new minimum wage. However,
this also ratcheted up tensions between the four major labour federations in
the country.

Cosatu, the Federation of Unions
(Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) were party, in 2016,
to agreeing the wage proposals and therefore support them. The SA Federation of
Trade Unions (Saftu), founded in April last year, was not in existence then and
has roundly condemned the proposals.

The argument by Saftu that the R20-an-hour
minimum wage is grossly inadequate, seems to have considerable traction,
especially since that amount was first mooted within the labour movement five
years ago. Even since the 2016 agreement, inflation has further lessened the
buying power of the proposed minimum.

However, the January introduction of a
minimum wage of R20 an hour, usually punted as R3 500 a month, will not apply
to the largest group of the lowest paid: domestic and farm workers, let alone
the thousands earning as little as R50 a day in the expanded public works
programme (EPWP). 

Workers in these three categories are
supposed eventually to qualify to be paid a minimum of R18 an hour for farm
labour, R15 for domestic work and R11 for those under the EPWP umbrella. And,
in all cases, any employer may apply, on the basis of financial hardship, to
have the rate waived.

In the case of farm workers, the
increases gained since the turbulent strikes of 2012/13 have often been
severely eroded. Many employers now charge increased amounts for accommodation,
electricity and water, leaving the workers sometimes worse off than before. Similar “in kind” payments may be levied on live-in domestic workers.

READ: SOLLY
MOENG & MICHAEL BAGRAIM: What state capture could cost labour law
amendments

There are also thousands of workers in
the EPWP, one of government’s key programmes. It was introduced following the
Growth and Development Summit of 2003, and aimed at “providing poverty and
income relief through temporary work for the unemployed”.

Instead, it soon became obvious that
the programme had undermined the wages and conditions of local government
workers while compromising the trade union movement that had supported its
introduction. Cash-strapped councils were quick to turn to much cheaper EPWP
labour to handle street cleaning and other jobs formally done by permanently
employed municipal workers.

But the most worrying aspect of what
municipal unions have dubbed “back door privatisation” came with the
outsourcing of a large area of firefighting to Mbombela-based Working on Fire
(WoF) as part of the EPWP. And, on the back of the EPWP, a profitable,
transnational company has grown that has, at the same time, massively reduced
the rate of pay for firefighters.

READ: Ramaphosa’s
Stimulus Plan: One month later, where does it stand?

This development is what firefighting
organisations around the world have long warned about. They feel that
firefighting and emergency medical services, since they are critical to the
well-being of everyone, should never be in the hands of private companies.

But they acknowledge that private
companies, many with their bottom lines squeezed, are everywhere hovering, keen
to pick up any lucrative business that may be on offer as various levels of
government try to offload their service delivery obligations. In the case of
WoF this “offloading” has proved extremely profitable to parent
company, Kishugu Holdings (Pty) Ltd that now operates firefighting-related
services on three continents.

“But for us nothing has really
changed,” says a WoF firefighter. Although still apparently employed under
the EPWP, he and other firefighters have worked for years in their jobs and now
earn little more than R2 100 a month, with no medical aid provision. Even at
R20 an hour, they would still be paid a fraction of the rate due to other “permanent”
firefighters.

These are some of the facts that should
make it plain why increasing numbers of workers are expressing both cynicism
and anger about the stories circulating about the benefits of a R20 minimum
wage, and how the EPWP provides a stepping stone to decent work with decent
pay.

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