Inside Labour: Minimum wage debate highlights internecine feuds


IT WAS a sign of the relative weakness of the once militant sections of the labour movement that Energy Minister Jeff Radebe could sign a deal with 27 independent power producers with hardly a peep of protest. 

Only the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) tried to halt, by means of a failed court interdict, this measure of privatisation. 

Previously, most unions - and certainly those affiliated to Cosatu — vehemently opposed any move towards privatisation by the state.

Energy - along with water and sanitation - was seen as essential to keep in public ownership and moves, when they were made - for example in Nelspruit and the Dolphin coast - met with fierce, even if finally failed, resistance.

Focus on minimum wage

Today the South African labour movement is in a state of flux, with a largely unnoticed internecine war for members and influence going on.

Currently, the debate about the now delayed introduction of the R20 an hour minimum wage is a prime focus.

From the looks of it, some bitter battles lie ahead as strong arguments are advanced for scrapping the existing proposals. But the issue has provided the newest entrant to the labour scene, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), with ammunition to use against the other three federations.

Cosatu, the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) all gave a thumbs-up to the minimum wage proposal, although only as a welcome start.

The agreement was struck at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), where the three federations represent the labour constituency. 

All three initially wanted a higher minimum, Cosatu pitching for R4 500 a month. But after two years of negotiations, R3 500 a month was decided on and this was translated into R20 an hour.

The proposals include a three-year “catch-up” period for farm and domestic workers, whose minimum pay is scheduled to start at R18 and R15 an hour.

No sooner was this deal hailed as a breakthrough, among others by President Cyril Ramaphosa, than loud concerns were raised. In particular, as was pointed out in this column last week, R20 an hour would only mean R3 500 a month for someone employed full time. There is no guarantee that this will apply.

In any event as various studies, some of them reflected in this column, have shown, even two or three years ago an income of R3 500 would have been inadequate, beyond bare subsistence, to feed, clothe, house, transport and educate a family of four.

But, as supporters of the proposed minimum wage have pointed out, nearly half those people listed as being in work today earn less than this.

However, part of the reason for the lower incomes is that many people listed as employed only work on a part-time basis. And, as the latest Oxfam report notes, 26% of the population does not have access “to affordable, nutritious and safe food to meet the basic health requirements”.

Rise in poverty levels

Even more frighteningly, a World Bank report recently noted that more than half of South Arica’s population qualifies as “poor”, and that poverty increased in the five years to 2015.

This where the country’s first billionaire president now features as the 14th wealthiest man in the country.

The massive and growing wage and welfare gap has provided Saftu with a wealth of ammunition in the battle not only against the proposed minimum wage, but also against Cosatu.

Most of the Saftu affiliates, notably Numsa and the Food and Allied Workers Union, broke away from Cosatu - a federation that remains part of the governing, ANC-led alliance.

Numsa, as the major force within Saftu, is also committed to the formation of a “workers’ party” while Cosatu is still committed to fellow alliance member, the SA Communist Party as “the workers’ party”.

Given this background it is hardly surprising that Saftu has, to a large extent, donned the mantle of labour militancy that once seemed a Cosatu possession.

With this alignment of forces, it was also not surprising that Saftu has pointed out not only the fact of Ramaphosa’s wealth but also that his annual presidential salary is R3.5m. This equates to more than R67 000 a month.

But as Saftu notes in one of its most recent releases, the average pay of executives in the top 100 companies is now R17.97m a year, “which amounts to R69 000 a day and R8 625 an hour”.

Whether, as Saftu maintains, the economy is “in free fall” or not, the situation for working people is dire.

The federation has also taken up cudgels over proposed amendments to the labour laws. In this, it could find itself allied with other federations who may also see these steps as part of entrenching a system of growing inequality.

That might provide a tiny measure of hope for eventual labour unity.

Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

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