Let's raise minimum wages to stave off revolution

THE story is headlined ‘PACSA says you should pay your domestic worker R8,000 a month – minimum’, so it was bound to cause a stir – especially when the story mentioned that the median salary of whites was R10 000 a month. (Psst: median ain’t average – the average white salary is more like R25 000.)

And I get the reasons for the fuss, of course I do – I’m a journalist, after all: peanuts is what we live on. I could never afford to pay a worker R8 000 a month, which is why I have a very part-time helper to do the things my aching back prevent me from doing.

But actually, PACSA’s point was about minimum wages generally, and it’s a good one. Because the current minimum wages are damn low: the average minimum wage as currently set is R2 362. (The top minimum wage for domestic workers for 2017, in the cities, is R2 422.54; the lowest is R1 562.21.)

If you read the organisation’s June 2017 Price Barometer, they run down the numbers for basic nutrition in some detail: “In June 2017 the cost of feeding a small child (aged 3-9 years) a diet complete in minimum nutrition is R552.38 per month. The cost of feeding a girl/boy child (aged 10-13 years) or an adult woman (aged 19-64 years) or an elderly woman (aged >65 years) a diet complete in minimum nutrition is R599.48 per month.”

Girl children, active women and men cost R635.97 per month. Boy children, very active men or pregnant or breastfeeding women cost R707.98 per month. 

So let’s say your single-breadwinner household consists of mom, grandpa and three kids aged from three to 15. You’re going to need just under R2 350 to feed a basic nutritious diet (chicken feet rather than breast of chicken, ‘government’ bread instead of sourdough) to all five people. Not much will be left over from your minimum wage for transport, toiletries and other essentials, will it?

And you’re lucky to have a job: out of 29 million Black South Africans only 11.6 million are employed; their income has to stretch very, very thin to feed the remaining 17.4 million people.

Oh, but, as one FB comment put it, “what about all the grants domestic workers get”? Yeah, I know, almost one in three South Africans gets a social grant, so they’re just coasting along, filching money from the pockets of the tiny group who pay income tax (this year “1.9 million individuals are expected to contribute an estimated 80% of income tax”, although that ignores the fact that all of us pay VAT on purchases and petrol and other levies).

I responded: “I know of no domestic worker who is getting a grant from the government. Someone with a disability or over the age of 65 would not be doing hard manual labour, and able-bodied adults don't qualify for grants. Many will, however, be getting a grant for one or more children. The Child Support Grant just went up in April to a whopping R380 a month.”

In other words, the grants, while they have done a decent job of improving nutritional status for our kids and the elderly and other vulnerable groups, don’t come close to covering the cost of basic nutrition.

The result is that, in South Africa, one in four children are stunted, with child stunting rates “more or less constant, fluctuating around 25% since 1993 – never above 30%, never below 20%...”

And: “Stunting is associated with an under-developed brain, with long-lasting harmful consequences, including diminished mental ability and learning capacity, poor school performance in childhood, reduced earnings and increased risks of nutrition related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in future,” according to Unicef.

This will surely affect each and every one of us over time; what does it mean to our economic prosperity and wellbeing as a country, as a community, if one in four of us leaves the starting blocks with lead weights on his or her feet?

And think about the possible consequences: as the author of an anti-corn law tract pointed out back in 1843 in Britain, there is an “intimate connexion” (sic) between hunger and revolution.

Recipe for disaster

This massive need is a recipe for disaster. Truly. You’ve heard of Marie Antoinette, right? Things didn’t end very well for her.

So there’s a strong case to be made for raising minimum wages – for the sake of all of us, rich, middling and poor – to at least a level where families can dimly see the possibility of attaining basic nutrition AND covering essential costs like transport… even if only with a telescope on a clear day. (Let’s remember that putting a little more money into the hands of people who spend rather than invest will generate economic activity and demand, which is good for all of us.)

But maybe R8 000 is a reach, for now anyway. So maybe we have to think of other solutions, too. This country produces enough food to feed all of us generously; why do we have hungry people then? How can we bring food prices down for the hungry? How can we boost rural economies, so fewer people flee their collapse, only to meet hunger on the fringes of the cities?

I have some ideas, maybe you do too: wouldn’t it be great, if, instead of yelling at each other about minimum wages, we had a ‘Codesa’ of food security, where bright thinkers started to plan a full-belly world for all?

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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