Picture: THINKSTOCK
Even with sectoral level wages being set by the Department of Labour each year, vulnerable workers would benefit hugely from a national minimum wage, says the writer. Picture: THINKSTOCK

ONE OF the most morally indefensible features of the South African economy is how it continues to exploit "the working poor" — people who are in informal employment or even full-time jobs, but are low paid, perform menial and boring tasks and are vulnerable to losing their employment at short notice.

Their jobs do not have the same economic effect as well-paid formal ones in sectors such as finance or industry, and they are, therefore, not valued as employees.

Take Shoki Motshe as an example. She lives in Vereeniging, Gauteng, and has been working as a cleaner for one of SA’s leading contract-cleaning companies for more than 30 years. Every morning, she wakes up at 3am to get ready for work. Yet, when the company she works for won a cleaning contract for the head office of a technology company in Bronkhorstspruit, she was told to transfer there or lose her job. So, for the past 10 years, she has been using public transport to commute 170km from Vereeniging to Bronkhorstspruit. She has had a few close calls with her employer because she often arrives late.

Public transport to Bronkhorstspruit is erratic, so she relies on the kindness of strangers to give her lifts from where the taxi route ends to her place of work.

Motshe earns R3,000 a month with no benefits. She spends R1,200 a month on transport. She can barely make ends meet after paying for basic living costs and food, and is falling behind on her debt repayments — especially the high-interest loan from a mashonisa.

"On most days, I don’t have enough money to buy food and have to work Saturdays at my manager’s house to get an extra income," she says. "Quality of life? What is that? I consider it a good day if I get home at 8pm on weekdays. I have no life. Sunday is the only time I can rest."

The proposed introduction of a national minimum wage is an attempt to tackle this injustice. The process began in 2012, when discussions on the subject were kicked off by the Congress of South African Trade Unions. It was discussed at the alliance summit in 2013 and last year, it was raised for the first time in Parliament in President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address.

In November 2014, the government, labour and business, through the medium of the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s labour relations summit, committed themselves to a broad dialogue on a national minimum wage. Parliament’s labour portfolio committee conducted nationwide public hearings from November 2014 to April last year.

The problems faced by the working poor and the huge fissures between them and middle-class society, largely ignored in SA over the past two decades while income inequality widened even further, cannot be ignored any longer.

The real median pay for minimum or low-wage work in SA has remained stagnant during the past 20 years. In formal, unionised workplaces, it increased by only 2.95% from 1997 to 2013 — that is barely keeping up with inflation, let alone improving the lot of the poor.

Even with sectoral level wages being set by the Department of Labour each year, vulnerable workers would benefit hugely from a national minimum wage.

The empirical literature does not clinch the case for or against raising the minimum wage for various reasons. However, it is worth noting that there is no outright evidence that a modest increase and an introduction of a national minimum wage will destroy jobs.

Conversely, it is worth reflecting on the argument that by guaranteeing a minimum standard of living — a "living wage" that would be facilitated by a national minimum wage — this could have the benefit of taking some of the pressure off key parts of the state and, in particular, the role played by social grants, that may prove unsustainable in the long run if nothing changes.

• Molopyane is a labour and mining analyst at Creative Voodoo Consulting