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SAFTU does not welcome Poverty National Minimum Wage Act

President Cyril Ramaphosa preparing his SONA 2018 Speech at his official residence Highstead, Cape Town. 16/02/2018, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

The overwhelming majority of workers wiil not be celebrating the signing into law of the Below Poverty National Minimum Wage Act by President Ramaphosa.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions reiterates its view that the minimum level of R20 an hour is far below what anyone should have to live on. It condemns millions of workers and their families to government-sanctioned poverty.

That amount was bad enough when it was first adopted in 2016. More than two years later, when it comes into effect on 1 January 2019, it is worth even less in real terms, after the VAT increase, successive fuel price hikes, the increases in ‘sin taxes’ and the price of food, transport and other goods and services.

Even the President admits that R20 an hour is not a living wage! A Wits University study in 2015 calculated a poverty line that takes the costs-of-basic-needs of South Africans into account in order to link individual wages to household poverty, and derived a threshold definition for the “working poor” of R4 125 in 2015 prices.

At 2018 prices that figure must be nearer R5000 a month, R1500 more than anyone working for a full month on the R20 an hour NMW.

Worse still, many workers will not even get this amount. The implementation of a minimum of R18 for farm workers, R15 for domestic workers and R11 for learners employed under the Skills Development Act and workers on expanded public works programmes has been put on ice; employers will not have to pay even those pitiful amounts, as their implementation date has been indefinitely postponed to a date to be fixed by the President.

The act also provides for employers who say they cannot pay the minimum wage due to constraints in their businesses to be eligible for exemptions, so that they can keep paying below R20. Many others, particularly in the informal sector, are likely to ignore the law altogether and continue paying casual workers even lower wages for as long as they get away with it.

SAFTU condemns equally vehemently the Labour Relations Amendment Act, also now signed into law, which makes provision for the establishment of an advisory arbitration panel supposedly to deal with “long and violent strike action in the interest of labour stability” but which in reality will provide employers and government with powers to delay, frustrate and even ban strikes and picketing by workers.

This is a blatant attack on workers’ constitutional right to withdraw their labour and shifts power even more firmly into the hands of the employers who already have the upper hand in industrial disputes, especially when workers are unorganised or members of weak, ‘sweetheart’ unions.

The federation is rolling out mass action against these amendments and is seriously contemplating litigation and lodging an ILO complain against our govermment.

SAFTU condemns with contempt the leaders of COSATU, FEDUSA and NACTU who negotiated these laws and are still welcoming them, on the flimsy argument that at least some workers who are living in abject poverty will be able to live in just slightly less abject poverty, or that ‘anything is better than nothing’.

This is an outrageous position for union federations which claim to be representing workers and the poor, but are in reality helping to give credibility to a government which is lining up with business to keep wages below the poverty level.

SAFTU will not give up the fight against these laws but campaign even more vigorously against such attacks on workers’ living standards and human rights. The federation’s national executive committee has just launched a recruitment campaign which will target the 76% of unorganised workers, which includes those most affected by these new laws.

One of the central demands of this campaign will be for a living wage of R12 500 a month, the amount for which the martyrs of Marikana gave their lives. We owe it to their memory to accept nothing less.