Unequal wages fuel revolt

We have to smash the old Apartheid wage structure, said Satawu’s Jane Barrett. (Elvis Ntombela)

We have to smash the old Apartheid wage structure, said Satawu’s Jane Barrett. (Elvis Ntombela)

Discussing the issue of income disparity at the business breakfast hosted by the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday this week, Satawu’s Jane Barrett suggested that it was not only a serious flaw, but also the source of growing discontent.

“Those who have power have to wake up and smell the roses,” she said. “We have significant revolt on our doorsteps if we don’t all stand together and say people are going to have to give up to build the positive future that we all want.

“The fact of the matter is that those who are in economic power in this country remain unwilling to engage in the redistribution argument.”

Barrett suggested that this would require “brave moves, state intervention at a lot of different levels, strengthening of labour law enforcement and requires a commitment to redistribution above all”.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies agreed that the wage disparities remained a fundamental issue that had to be addressed. He referred to a 2012 study on executive salaries in South Africa, noting that the highest chief executive salary of R190-million was 51 000 times the amount paid to recipients of the child support programme.

“This says to us, as we build an inclusive economy and make the kind of structural changes and transformations that I’ve been suggesting we have to make, that we have to industrialise, we have drive the public infrastructure programme and become part of the Africa story around industrialisation.

“Quite often people say we have too many strikes and that the level of wage demands are outrageous. If people [point out that] the bonus of the chief executive was not only larger in absolute terms, but was larger in relative terms than the salary demands, you are not in much of a position to argue that the wage demand is outrageous.”

Barrett said that while talk of the need for restructuring the economy was valid, it would be remiss to not address the restructuring of wages.

National minimum wage

“We are still sitting with an apartheid wage structure of huge levels of inequality and huge levels of poverty flowing from those unequal wages. This is the crux of shifting the overall levels of poverty and inequality,” she said.

Using the crisis in the mining industry as an example, she said that there had to be an agreement sooner or later on a national minimum wage. This would need to extend beyond an averaging of the existing 14 sectoral determinations on a minimum wage, she added.

“Our argument is that if we lift poverty wages significantly it will have a knock-on effect on consumption and production. So, in other words, it is an economic lever; it is not just about the moral imperative to raise people out of poverty. We want to debunk this myth that if you raise wages you create unemployment.”

Barrett suggested that the conversation would need to include significant strengthening of industrial policy that breached silos that currently prevent sufficient national consensus on common projects and a vision of where the country is going. “And into that consensus must go a very strong push for the wage structure,” she said.

“We have to smash the old apartheid wage structure. We have to bite the bullet and not just tweak at the top — that is important, but symbolic. It is not going to make a difference to the worker on the shop floor.”

This article forms part of a larger supplement. All content has been sourced independently by the Mail & Guardian's Supplements editorial team.