Minimum wage still not a living wage after increase

Farmworkers, domestic workers and EPWP workers say that the minimum wage is not enough to meet their basic needs. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Workers earning the minimum wage say that its increase earlier this year has not made life easier.

A group of workers from the sectors who had their minimum wage increased earlier this year say that the increase makes no significant change in their lives because it’s too little. The Department of Employment and Labour announced in February this year that the national minimum wage (NMW) was going to increase from R20.76 to R21.69 with effect from March. The minister, Thulas Nxesi, said in a statement that the agricultural sector has been aligned with the NMW rate of R21.69 per hour from R18.68 following a transitional phase. Domestic workers will be entitled to R19.09 per hour from R15.57 and could be expected to be aligned with the NMW when the next review is considered and that workers on Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) are entitled to R11.93 per hour.

The national minimum wage is determined by a commission consisting of independent experts, business, labour and community representatives. Speaking to Elitsha, one of the commissioners, Trenton Elsey, explained that they inherited a multi-tier minimum wage and that they considered a range of factors that include inflation, cost of living, wage levels and collective bargaining outcomes and productivity.

A general worker in De Doorns vineyards, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, said that the increase has not made a change in her life: “I’m a single parent of two and I also look after my two younger siblings so the increase is not enough to meet our basic needs like food and electricity.”

Women On Farms Project says it supports a living wage and women having access to land. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

“The working conditions are difficult and during the harvesting season, one can work up to 12 hours and it is hard. We do not have benefits at all, you only get paid for the hours you have worked. The employer does provide transport to work but the trucks are always overloaded even during the pandemic. There is no social distancing on those trucks,” she said.

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Asanda Fekema, a EPWP worker for the Buffalo City municipality in the Eastern Cape, said that they also do not have benefits and that if one is sick they should organise someone to stand in for them otherwise they won’t be paid for that day. “We work three days a week and that totals to 12 days a month. We earn a R2,000 stipend and if you are sick, you must send someone to stand in for you,” she said.

Another EPWP worker from Buffalo City municipality, Feziwe Cakatha, said that the stipend is barely enough for her needs. “I had to make sure that I have money to travel to work, buy food for my family and other needs like electricity. It is not enough but it is better than nothing,” she said.

In June 2021, EPWP workers at the Buffalo City municipality protested outside the mayor’s office demanding to be employed permanently. Photo by Elitsha reporter

Meanwhile, domestic workers who spoke to Elitsha lamented the fact that they are still paid below the national minimum wage. Gladys Mnyengeza, the treasurer of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu) and a domestic worker, said that the increase in minimum wage for domestic workers has not changed the lives of the workers. “Most domestic workers are single parents and the increase is not enough to cover basic needs like food, transport for the domestic worker and school children,” she said.

The South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union is concerned about the fact that the minimum wage for domestic workers is the lowest of all wages. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

Denise Samuels, the labour rights coordinator for Women On Farms, said that they are working towards launching a living wage campaign in August. “The increase is an insult to the workers who work the land to produce food but go hungry. We have never agreed to the national minimum wage. We have always stood for a living wage,” said Samuels. Covid-19 and lockdown has affected farmworkers badly as they struggle to access healthcare facilities. Samuels said they received complaints from farmworkers that farmers were increasing electricity and water charges as the minimum wage was increased.

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Media reports state that farmer organisations like Agri-SA, the Transvaal Landbou Unie (TLU SA), the South African Table Grape Industry (SATGI), Free State Agriculture and Kwazulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) were against the NMW increase and warned that it would lead to job losses in the sector. However, according to David Esau, inspector with the labour department, the evidence they have indicates that farmers can afford the increase. “Based on the review and evidence we have collected there was no more need for farmworkers to be below the national minimum wage. The low number of exemptions that were granted indicates that farmers can afford the national minimum wage,” said Esau.

Feature insert on the national minimum wage

Sadsawu’s general secretary, Myrtle Witbooi, said that the adjusted minimum wage for domestic workers does not do justice to the sector. “The sector is earning less than the national minimum wage and we view that as unfair. Why must domestic workers earn less?” According to Esau, they had to do a balancing act between keeping jobs that are already there and the high unemployment rate in the country. “It has to be a balancing act because if the minimum wage for domestic workers had been increased to the same level as the national minimum wage, it could have led to job losses,” said Esau.

Women On Farms, according to Samuels, has come up with few recommendations of how to achieve a living wage which include a wealth tax and campaigning for every woman to get one hectare of land. “One of the recommendations that we are calling for is the taxing of the rich to achieve a living wage. We are also part of the campaign that calls for one hectare-one woman. We will launch the living wage campaign in August,” she said.

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