SAFTU demands a Higher Minimum Wage, and Condemns Agricultural Bosses for Extreme Exploitation of farmworkers
South Africa’s white-dominated commercial farmers are yearning to roll the times back to the colonial era at farm workers’ expense. The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) condemns in the strongest terms the agricultural unions for their pathetic attempt to return their farms to the dark days of colonialism and apartheid. Retaining even its apartheid-era name, the Transvaal Agricultural Union has been demanding that the Department of Employment and Labour reverse its support for minimum wage increases. The National Minimum Wage Commission’s recommendation was to equalise the minimum wage, with the exceptions of domestic workers and public works programme.
As a result, the minimum hourly wage for farm and domestic workers increased in March 2020 to R18.68 and R15.57. It will now rise further, starting on 01 March 2021: to R21.69 per hour for farmworkers to R19.09 per hour for domestic workers. This is profoundly inadequate, SAFTU has said from the outset in 2018. Even more shocking is that the state’s Extended Public Works Programme workers will be paid a mere R11.93/hour.
In rand terms, farm workers’ wages will increase by what is still an insultingly low amount: about R450 per month for a domestic worker and about R350 per month for a farmworker.
Bear in mind that the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity monthly food basket price monitoring shows inflation far above the national average for 2020. The January 2021 “basic nutritional food basket” for a family of four is R4941, and the average cost of feeding a single child is R721.
Even the small minimum wage increase, still leaving millions workers far below the Upper Bound Poverty Line, is apparently too high for the racist white bosses who formed apartheid South Africa’s backbone. They are crying foul pleading with the Minister and Commission to reconsider their position.
SAFTU reject the white farmers’ crying “wolf!” given their own rising profitability, even in the midst of the crisis. The last data from Stats SA – 08 December 2020 – revealed that agriculture, forestry and fisheries had a seasonally adjusted and annualised growth rate of 18,5% for the third quarter of 2020.
One reason is that in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic peaking last year in that same quarter (July-September), farmers underpaid their vulnerable workers in comparison to the surplus value these employees created with their hard labour as essential workers. Farm and domestic workers are responsible for our country’s food supply and many households’ social reproduction, yet they constitute some of the most brutally exploited South African workers.
The bosses have taken full advantage of their vulnerability, in part because too many farm workers and domestic workers are provided accommodation by their employers, often in slum-like conditions. In some cases, landless farmworkers cannot even bury their loved ones. Bosses tighten their control by hosting schools and health facilities on their gigantic landholdings. The bosses have used this power to tighten their stranglehold on the farm and domestic workers and maintained a brutal semi-feudal relationship with them.
SAFTU regards the current national minimum wage of R21 69/hour as a slavery wage! We have gone on strike against this low level in 2018, and we will be again on strike on the 24 February 2021 to protest against wages that are so pathetic that South Africa is the most unequal society on earth, with the highest ‘Gini Coeffcient’ for income ever recorded. (The World Bank in 2015 put this Gini at 0.78 – whereby 0 is perfect equality and 1 is where just one person has all the societys’ income – before measuring government interventions ranging from monthly social grants to corporate welfare.)
We know the Gini Coefficient in all countries measured has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, even in countries where governments kept worker salaries paid through state funding when economic lockdowns were necessary. These included, for example, Brazil, where even a right-wing government provided a R1800 monthly payment to unemployed workers during most of the pandemic period in 2020.
Although we welcomed the 800 000 temporary increase in public sector jobs announced in October, the wages remain too low to raise a family and too few workers have since been hired by the state. Moreover, SAFTU condemns in the strongest terms the minimum wage for state Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) staff: an insulating R11,93 per hour – or R1900/month. Today there are hundreds of thousands of workers in this category. In real terms, the EPWP workers perform full-time local government workers’ duties. They clean public toilets, fix potholes, maintain graveyards, etc., which is all work usually performed by municipal workers.
The expanded public works programme workers are kept on six-month and yearly contracts, and in violation of the Labour Relations Act which attempts to slow casualisation, they keep on being renewed for many years. At times these workers are used politically by corrupt counsellors who used them as a buffer. They must bribe unscrupulous councillors to get their contracts renewed perpetually, and if they don’t do this, they are replaced without any due process. At times their job security depends on the councillor employing them, with their contracts then canceled if the counsellor loses his/her position in the next elections or within the ANC’s notoriously vicious factional battles.
SAFTU reiterated our call that all EPWP should be insourced and employed full time by the state, so that they can enjoy the benefits of better wages.
Everyone is grateful for a wage increase in these desperate times. But it is obvious that with inflation hitting poor and working class people much harder than the rich, and with up to 1.3 million net jobs lost in 2020 according to data interpreted by the Institute for Economic Justice this week, the minimum wage increases are inadequate. They should be raised further so that workers are not forced into hunger; a Basic Income Grant should be implemented immediately; and the austerity regime that is cutting back our state services should be halted.
These and other demands will be made even more forcefully on 24 February when all eyes are on Finance Minister Tito Mboweni. Though Covid-19 prevents us from having mass actions, those days will come again, and we will be ever more vigilant – and angry – about the deterioration of the home budgets of tens of millions of poor and working South Africans