Cosatu. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Cosatu. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

THE number of sectors to be excluded from a national minimum wage should be kept to the minimum, and while limited exemptions for businesses should be clear, they should come with strict enforcement, a symposium on the national minimum wage heard on Wednesday.

A national minimum wage and a living wage have been long-standing demands by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). In its 2014 election manifesto, the African National Congress (ANC) promised to explore the introduction of a national minimum wage.

Last year Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was tasked to look into a national minimum wage and labour instability, both now before the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). Debate within Nedlac has shifted to the level at which it should be set and the scope of implementation.

However, the second day of a University of Witwatersrand (Wits) symposium on the benefits and possible architecture of a national minimum wage on Wednesday heard that Nedlac had made little progress.

Academics and experts gave indications of the list of exemptions or variations for companies and business sectors within a possible national minimum wage system.

There is no standardised best practice for the system internationally, with exemptions and variations extended to vulnerable sectors, such as agriculture, and within sectors and tiers determined by geographical regions.

Researchers from the National Minimum Wage Research Institute at Wits warned on Wednesday that many exclusions could result in poor compliance, while complex definitions could increase the number of expected legal battles, as experienced in other countries.

The institute’s Elena Konopelko said exclusion of multiple sectors was a "risky process" that could ultimately reduce compliance, although these exemptions were also necessary to ensure compliance.

"A minimum wage should have maximum coverage, that’s the bottom line," she said.

Cosatu’s Neil Coleman said little progress was being made within Nedlac due to the complexity of discussing issues without consensus on what evidence to use and bids by business to include other labour issues. Business had sought to include the issue of strike balloting within the task team looking at the minimum wage when talks began in June last year, but this was subsequently split into a separate task team on labour stability, he said.

"The discussions (at Nedlac) must be evidence-based, and some parties don’t want to hear the evidence," said Mr Coleman. The matter of "which evidence you are prepared to entertain" was political.

The Department of Labour on Wednesday released a new determination in the agriculture and forestry sectors. From March the daily wage for a farmworker will be R128 a day, up from R120. Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said the increase was necessary to allow wages to keep pace with the cost of living.