Inside labour: Petrol price rise fuels working class pain

Terry Bell. Picture: Supplied
Terry Bell. Picture: Supplied

Fuel prices went up again last week with hardly a whisper of comment.

Perhaps we have become inured to such economic pain. And it does amount to pain – the fuel price rise will again adversely affect every wage earner and increase the desperation among the millions of unemployed people in this country.

This, in turn, will fuel crime levels and violence.

Fuel price rises – for petrol, diesel and paraffin – feed fairly quickly into the overall economy.

One of the first sectors to feel the effects – and increase charges – is the taxi industry, which remains the major means of commuter transport.

And, as commuters around the country continue to grumble, once fares go up, they seldom, if ever, come down, even when fuel prices do.

Because food is trucked from place to place, the increased cost of (usually) diesel is passed on.

So, the consumer, whether employed or unemployed, ultimately pays in a society where R6 000 a month is considered just sufficient to adequately house, feed, clothe and educate a family of four.

This reality, coupled with clear evidence of disproportionate wealth in an increasingly corrupt environment, leads to frustration, anger and violence.

A good example, at a grass roots level, is the wage gap in municipal pay.

A worker carrying out the dirty, smelly and essential labour of rubbish collection, for example, earns on average R72 000 a year, while a “white-collar” councillor is paid between R450 000 and R830 000.

Herein lies one of the reasons for the bloodshed resulting from apparent inner party battles that are under way in several regions of the country.

However, this is a separate issue, although it is a reflection of economic desperation.

We should try to take full stock of this situation and realise how important the labour movement’s demand for decent work and a living wage for all is; that the mantra that any job is better than no job is clearly nonsense.

Take the case of domestic, farm, forestry and hospitality workers, who, if they are lucky, have full-time work that at least pays the minimum set by ministerial determination.

But these all qualify as poverty wages.

In an attempt to bridge the wage and welfare gap for this sector, wage increases are based on the official inflation rate plus 1% to 2.5%.

However, official inflation is invariably much lower than the rate experienced by the low paid because of their necessary spending patterns.

Most of the estimated 1 million domestic workers do not have full-time employment. Their minimum – in probably most cases, the actual – hourly rate in a metropolitan area is R12.42 or R559 for a 45-hour week.

This is scheduled to be adjusted by the current inflation rate plus 2.5% in December.

If inflation is assessed at 6% – it may well be lower – this will add just R205.92 to the R2 422.54 urban domestic worker’s monthly pay.

Farm and forestry workers are marginally better off and their next pay rise is scheduled for March. Currently, their minimum hourly rate is R15.39, or R138.52 for a nine-hour day, with weekly income set at R692.62 or R3 001.13 a month.

Minimum rates in the hospitality industry range from R16.36 to R18.25 an hour, or R3 193 and R3 559 a month.

These rates are scheduled to be increased by the consumer price index plus 1.5% in July.

Against this background, it is easy to see why many in the labour movement see the introduction of a R3 500 minimum wage in March as something that will only help to fuel the fires of discontent.

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