Workers should be paid a minimum of R4 500 a month, the Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has said.
"Ideally no one must earn below R4 500," Vavi said at a conference to discuss the union federation's collective bargaining, organising and campaign challenges.
The minimum wage was one of the proposals that would be discussed in closed sessions at the conference, and formed part of Cosatu's stance that pay negotiations should not just focus on percentage increases, but also on the lowest paid workers being able to afford to live.
Vavi said the conference was taking place at a time when unemployment was high, global economic conditions were difficult and workers were being blamed for exacerbating problems.
Bargaining forums were becoming less representative and he accused "platinum belt bosses" of undermining collective bargaining.
He was referring to developments around the time of the fatal shooting of 34 people at Marikana in a clash with police last August, which saw the National Union of Mineworkers sidelined as rock drill operators went on strike.
Collective bargaining and agreements
Vavi said collective bargaining should be protected. Cosatu planned to resist the Free Market Foundation's Constitutional Court challenge against the Labour Relations Act sections which allow collective agreements made in bargaining councils to be extended to non-member employers and employees.
He said Cosatu wanted a move away from percentage-based pay increases to close wage gaps still lingering from the apartheid era.
"No one in South Africa can deny that our lives have improved over the past 19 years," he said.
"That is the point we must move from ... the issue is to improve on a base that is not ideal."
About 75% of workers earned an average of R3 300, which Cosatu considered below the "minimum living level".
He said 85% of the labour force was working for more than 40 hours a week, with 30% of workers (3.4-million workers) working for more than 45 hours a week.
Only 32% of all those who worked had medical aid benefits; 71% were not unionised; 43% (5.8-million people) had no access to paid maternity/paternity leave; 31% (4.2-million) had no access to paid sick leave.
Better life for all
Vavi said 35% (4.7-million) were engaged in contract and other short-term employment; 50% of workers (5.7-million) had no access to a pension or retirement fund, and 33% (4.4-million) do not get paid annual leave.
"The challenge for us is cut out, comrades. There can be no better life for all when the majority of workers are not getting that."
Earlier, he said the conference was taking place when the labour movement faced serious internal and external difficulties.
Allegations of corruption within unions had to be investigated, said Vavi. Last week he was caught up in accusations of impropriety in the sale of the union federation's old headquarters in Leyds Street, Braamfontein.
"Is that not what we demanded from government?"
Delegates sang "Inhliziyo ka Vavi imnene" as he walked to the podium. One delegate explained it was a gospel song adapted by a metalworker union, and that it meant they believed in Vavi.
"It is apt for the current challenges," he said.
Vavi warned about a "labour aristocracy" where shopstewards no longer wore overalls or did the "donkey work", but sat in air-conditioned offices and were incapable of serving members.
Where there were confrontations in union structures, they were often not about political ideology, but about money, and were "based on elitism".
He warned unionists about becoming preoccupied with their "Audi machines" urging them to confront the "social distance" being created, and "show love" to members.
He urged delegates to pay attention to core union issues.
"Service members, love our members afresh, let's renew the love to our members." – Sapa