Research shows that millions of people working at the wrong end of South Africa’s deeply unequal wage structure are earning inadequate wages.
Five casual workers emerged from the Motor Industry Bargaining Council on Tuesday 15 May 2018, and into Johannesburg’s bracing cold front after spending the morning in an arbitration, seeking to be made permanent workers.
Charles Molefe, Siya Ngwenya, Nelson Zwane, Simphiwe Mazibuko and Michael Sibiya (not their real names) and who were part of a group of workers who approached the council spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity.
As non-permanent workers employed through Bidvest Vericon at After Market Solutions’ Parts Incorporated warehouse in Meadowdale, they are paid a little over R20 an hour. Ngwenya says that he often packs motor vehicle parts worth over R2-million in that space of time.
Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Labour met on Wednesday 16 May 2018 to, among other business, finalise R20 an hour as South Africa’s first legislated national minimum wage. The committee’s EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) members were absent for the vote.
After an interruption in proceedings by the SAFTU (South African Federation of Trade Unions), which has resisted the amendments to labour legislation, the committee sent the National Minimum Wage Bill, along with proposed amendments to the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act, to the National Assembly.
Workers at the Parts Incorporated warehouse say they earn around R3,500 for a month of day shifts, and R2,700 for a month of night shifts. It doesn’t go far.
Molefe uses his wages to pay his R1,000 rent every month before spending about R700 on food. His debt repayments are usually around R400, and the taxis he takes from Tembisa to the warehouse and back cost R800 per month. All of this has to be paid before the cost of supporting his mother and younger sister.
All five of the workers are supporting families. They say that it would be impossible without working overtime hours. “Without overtime, there is no life,” says Molefe. Sibiya explains that he often has to work all four Saturdays and two Sundays in a month to get by.
When approached for comment, a Bidvest spokesperson said that while the company “can’t share private and confidential wage and other related, employee information”, the company’s employee remuneration, which “leads by example”, is “market related” and compliant with relevant legislation.
These workers are adamant that R20 an hour is not enough to survive on, however. “It’s robbery,” says Mazibuko. “they are making business out of us”. He says the overtime he has to work to survive means that he loses out on sleep, and hardly has time left to spend with his partner and their one-year-old child.
Mazibuko’s experience is borne out by research. The National Minimum Wage Research Initiative (NMW-RI) says that workers require R4,900 a month to lift themselves and their dependants out of poverty.
While the minimum wage may be low, however, it will raise the wages of a third of South Africa’s formal work force, according to NMWRI’s co-ordinator Gilad Isaacs.
This is internationally unprecedented. The minimum wage will impact twice the percentage of workers that minimum wage increases across Latin America did during the 2000s, where minimum wages invariably reduced inequality.
Safeguards to offset the minimum wage’s low starting were also agreed to in February 2017 after lengthy Nedlac negotiations. The safeguards were intended to ensure that the minimum wage increased to a dignified level over time.
Labour’s lead negotiator at Nedlac, Neil Coleman, says that the progressive aims at the heart of the national minimum wage are “very much” under threat in the current bills, however.
Isaacs, speaking to New Frame, says the National Minimum Wage Bill undermines the safeguards agreed to at Nedlac.
The bill does not include any guarantee that the minimum wage will increase from R20, for instance. This is despite an express provision made in the Nedlac agreement to protect against the erosion of the value of the minimum wage.
A more progressive medium-term target for the minimum wage was also agreed to. A progressive benchmark in the medium-term would have been a powerful weapon in the hands of workers, Coleman told New Frame.
It would have provided ammunition to campaigns – like those currently being organised by unions and other worker organisations – calling for a speedy move beyond a R20 minimum wage and towards a more dignified amount.
A NMW-RI press statement this week called the medium-term target currently included in the bill a “damp squib”, however. Instead of legislating an actual target, the bill has only mandated that such a target be set within three years.
Lower minimum wages for farm and domestic workers – R18 and R15 per hour respectively – were also supposed to be phased out over two years. During parliamentary deliberations, the Department of Labour (DoL) agreed to include the two-year expiry of the lower levels for domestic and farm workers, subject to finding the right legal formulation. The expiry has not been guaranteed in the final bill, however.
Coleman fears that the bill will undermine the independence of the National Minimum Wage Commission – the body that will be established to oversee the implementation of the legislation. According to the bill, the Commission will be housed in the Department of Labour, and will not receive a self-contained budget.
The Department of Labour’s Thembinkosi Mkalipi, speaking to New Frame, says establishing a commission with an independent budget is complex and would take too long. The most important thing, he says, is to deliver a minimum wage that does not result in job losses.
Research by NMW-RI and the South African Labour and Development Research Unit shows that Molefe, Ngwenya, Zwane, Mazibuko, Sibiya and millions of people working at the wrong end of South Africa’s deeply unequal wage structure are earning inadequate wages.
Coleman says that it is likely that the National Assembly will pass the bills in their current forms, including the lack of provisions that would guarantee the progressive increase of the minimum wage over time. DM
Market Solutions were given more than 24 hours to respond to a request for comment but failed to do so
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