Inside Labour: R3 440 is too little, too late

The bitter internecine feuding within the ANC-led alliance has caused major disruption within Cosatu-affiliated unions. And it shows little sign of abating, following another tumultuous period over the past week.

It may be bold, and perhaps foolhardy, to predict in such chaotic circumstances what any outcome may be, but it certainly seems as if, despite all the expressed opposition, President Jacob Zuma will remain in power. At least until 2019.

In the meantime, all manner of behind-the-scenes lobbying and manipulation is taking place, especially over whether Zuma should stay or go – and when.

The stalwarts – some 200 veterans of the movement – have made their play, with much sound and fury – and little substance. The same applied to the Cosatu central executive committee in a week that began with the long-awaited announcement of a minimum wage.

But if this announcement was meant to express growing national unity, it failed, despite the apparent unanimity shown initially about the minimum wage proposals. For these were only proposals, still very much open to debate and with no final timescale for implementation.

Yet, for many in the labour movement, this wage announcement was expected to be a watershed moment, something that would almost instantly transform the lives of at least the low-paid half of the working population.

Such expectations were naive, since the statement about a minimum wage came from a panel that was only going to advise what should be done regarding such a wage.

On the basis of this narrow mandate, the National Development Economic and Labour Council panel did sterling work, going through more than 60 research papers and consulting widely.

Their work showed clearly that such a move on the wage front would be of overall benefit, although it needed to be closely studied.

However, this process followed nearly two years of deadlocks between labour and business over the level to be set for a minimum wage. So it was scarcely surprising that, within hours of the wage announcement, there were rumblings of discontent.

The discontent is about not only the inadequacy of a minimum wage of R20 an hour, or R3 440 a month, but also the possible two- to three-year delay in implementation. Domestic workers in particular are up in arms over the suggestion that they should initially qualify for only 75% of the proposed minimum.

However, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa maintained that this was a “step in the right direction”.

But for many in the labour movement, it seems to be a step that was both too little, too late and failed to take cognisance of the wider reality, especially of the growing ranks of the unemployed and increasingly unemployable.

And, if there was any doubt about these figures continuing to grow, the Labour Force Survey announced on Tuesday put those to rest. Officially recognised unemployment has reached a 13-year high.

Radical measures are clearly needed but, with the governing party embroiled in conflict, there seems even less chance now of the political will being mustered to adopt the holistic policies and take the steps necessary for any real change.

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