Labour Wrap: Call for a universal basic income

The current debate in South Africa about a minimum wage misses a most important point, says Terry Bell in his latest Labour Wrap. 

A minimum wage caters only for the steadily diminishing numbers of men and women who will find work in the future.

Unfortunately, this concentration, both by business and labour on established work and wages, also tends largely to ignore the seriousness of the situation. But there are signs that this is changing.

For example, South Africa’s richest man, Johann Rupert, in an interview last week noted: “We are in for some bad and dangerous times.”  These, he said, would be caused not only by the increase in the wage and welfare gap, but also by the growth “in the ranks of the unemployable”.

Bell maintains that it is not only a lack of skills that is making more and more people unemployable; that all that is required is retraining and upskilling. Many men and women with skills, he says are increasingly finding that their skills are becoming redundant.

As the march of automation continues many more millions of people around the world will find it impossible to find work. According to one current estimate, for every productive process that is automated, 60 jobs are lost.

This is a guarantee of instability, of “bad and dangerous times”. But now one major trade union, Britain’s largest, Unite, has proposed a “universal basic income” as a possible solution. And in countries such as Finland and the Netherlands, an official debate has begun about the provision of a “universal basic wage”.

This means governments providing a basic living wage to every citizen, whether in work or not. And, as a Black Sash seminar in Johannesburg this month revealed, social assistance to the destitute and poor have beneficial impacts on society as a whole.

Bell asks if, in the present system, a universal basic income is possible. And, if it was, he wonders whether such a handout will be accepted in the longer term by many displaced working people.

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