Time to recall: Ye are many, they are few…

Posted on January 15, 2019


This coming year promises turbulence, both nationally and globally, with the political and economic environment remaining volatile. We, along with citizens of other nation-states, will also almost certainly be inundated with calls to patriotism and to pull together in the cause of a better life for all.

The question — as always — will be who should unite with whom and to what end? To make such decisions, we should all critically scrutinise what are likely to be a welter of claims and promises over coming months, especially with a general election looming on the domestic front.

Take the loudly trumpeted announcement about the R20 an hour minimum wage (MW) that was formally introduced on January 1. As City Press pointed out last week, this was promptly undermined by an exemption that allows companies making less than 6% of profit, not to pay this amount.

In the hype about the MW, what also tended to remain unsaid was that this will apply to only a probable minority of low paid workers. Above all, that this will not, for most, equate to the previously much mooted R3 500 a month.

Yet, only nine months ago, official circles continued to talk about a R3 500 MW pay packet. The stress now on an hourly rate seems acknowledgement that most of the lowest paid among the working poor do not have full-time work.

In any event, farm workers and that great army — mainly women — in domestic employ are not included. Later this year, these two groups, probably the largest single component of the working poor, may qualify for minimum hourly rates of R18 and R15. Unless exemptions apply.

But, as I have pointed out, under existing ministerial minimum wage determinations, domestic workers in metropolitan areas should already receive R15.28 an hour. And since when have even the existing levels been adequately policed?

However, the labour movement has always maintained that a MW should be a living wage; a guaranteed income that should assure the basic necessities of life. In the five years since unions at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) tabled R4 500 a month as a bare minimum, that minimal level of buying power has been severely eroded:

But it is true that the establishment of a MW is a step away from the vicious free-for-all supported by the free marketeers and most bosses at Nedlac. Yet, it is equally true that if the MW is set at a grossly inadequate level, it merely entrenches poverty.

However, the debate about pay and poverty was quickly overtaken by the annual matric results hype — this time peppered with confusion about 30% pass rates. But the 30% applies only to those students who cannot go on to tertiary eduction; it merely acknowledges that these are students who have attained matric: they are immediate entrants into a rapidly shrinking jobs market.

All the warranted fanfare about 80%-plus pass rates also tended to obscure two facts: in the first place, that another several hundred thousand individuals were now seeking jobs; secondly, that as many of their compatriots who had started school with them, 12 years ago had already joined the ranks of the massive army of jobless youth.

This paints a gloomy picture. But if we are ever to claw our way toward a better life for all, we need first to recognise, and deal with, the reality that lies behind the often rosy rhetoric of self styled leaders. Working people are central to this and should bear in mind the words of the poet, Shelley: Ye are many, they are few…

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