The Sunday Read: Labour Minister on why 2019 was the earliest opportunity to implement minimum wage

Workers have gathered protesting for a higher minimum wage. (Amanda Khoza, News24)
Workers have gathered protesting for a higher minimum wage. (Amanda Khoza, News24)

Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant says 2019 was the "earliest opportunity" for government to implement the R20 per hour National Minimum Wage which became effective on January 1. 

“Previously [during apartheid] workers didn’t have any rights,” she commented, adding that the Freedom Charter envisioned a minimum wage “but didn’t say by when”.

Oliphant, a former trade unionist was on the campaign trail last week in KwaZulu-Natal ahead of the ANC’s 2019 manifesto launch on Saturday. A key promise of the party’s 2014 manifesto was to investigate the modalities of implementing a basic wage.  

“We have gone beyond that…our democracy is maturing, during the negotiation process, labour wanted to pull out and business also wanted to pull out, at the end of the day, you need to discuss and convince each other,” Oliphant said in an interview with Fin24. 

The Ekurhuleni Declaration in November 2014 led to a sometimes fraught process at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) with government, business, the community sector and labour agreeing in 2016 to a R20 per hour minimum wage. 

This will be phased in for farmworkers at R18 an hour, domestic workers at R15 per hour and Expanded Public Works (EPP) participants at R11 per hour. 

The National Minimum Wage commission will come up with a proposal for these categories to increase these salaries within two years, according to Oliphant. 

Country can succeed 

Oliphant sees the minimum wage deal between the sectors as a groundbreaking model for South Africa. 

“If we were able to agree to a minimum wage, we will be able to make sure this country succeeds," she says.

Oliphant says she takes objection to the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi who have opposed the minimum wage calling it “slave wages”. 

Oliphant points to Saftu’s largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) which she says has negotiated hourly rates of R15 and R17 for petrol attendants and these workers stand to benefit from the R20 per hour minimum wage. 

She admitted it is not ideal for Saftu to fall outside of Nedlac and said the delay was due to the requirement for trade union federations to submit two years of audited financial statements to the negotiating forum. 

Saftu was launched in April 2017. 

Strikes should be last resort 

Alongside the National Minimum Wage Act was the changes to the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act, which will give the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) greater powers to intervene in protracted or violent strikes. 

Oliphant, commenting on the recent wave of violence during strike action involving the plastic sector and mining company Sibanye-Stillwater, said industrial action should always be a last resort and shop stewards should be better trained on collective bargaining. 

The minister of labour, appointed in 2010, was at the helm of the portfolio during the 2012 Marikana and platinum sector labour uprising and the decline in formal employment numbers in recent years.  

Oliphant believes employers and workers should have mutual trust and be open with one another if the country is to manage the transition towards greater mechanisation as well as changes in employment trends such as increased casual work and contract work. 

She also warns that labour should be wary of pushing to follow Germany’s example of including trade unions on company boards as they could be forced to implement collective decisions they disagree with.   

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