A minimum wage must restore the dignity of black people

The introduction of a national minimum wage must go beyond the narrow purpose of establishing a minimum floor wage, below which no worker can be paid.

The motivation for such a socioeconomic policy instrument must be understood in the context of more than a 100 years of institutionalised slave wages, which have condemned black workers and their dependants to abject poverty and misery.

Slave wages that dehumanised black workers were institutionalised as early as the mid-1800s through legislation such as the Masters and Servants Act of 1856, which made it illegal for black workers to even consider themselves humans. There were other laws: the Industrial Conciliation Act 11 of 1924, which provided for job reservation for white workers, the Minimum Wage Act of 1925, which reinforced job reservation for white workers and with better wages, and the Wage Amendment Act of 1930, when the government recognised the need to fix a minimum wage for black workers to protect white workers from being undercut. Such institutionalised slave wages stripped black workers of their humanity and dignity.

By the late 1960s, real wages, particularly for black workers, were no higher than they were in 1911, and the wages in 1911 were, if anything, lower than they were two decades ago, according to Francis Wilson, a professor in the School of Economics at University of Cape Town. Essentially, this is what laid the dehumanising foundations of slave wages for black workers for generations to come.

Capital globalisation led to further social wage repression, and rising inequality and poverty. The South Africa economy, in the form of a mineral-energy complex, created a conducive environment for global capital to flourish, given the cheap labour. So black workers, and all black people, continue to be disenfranchised and continue to receive slave wages.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the apartheid government was under pressure to reduce the drastic increase of black workers in the urban areas, it chose an industrial decentralisation policy, particularly in border towns. To encourage industries to relocate, the government guaranteed businesses a cheap and endless supply of labour – black workers.

To make the policy even more attractive to industries, in addition to substantial subsidies, the apartheid government also repealed all minimum wage legislation, particularly in the Bantustans. Such a decision in a highly unequal society could only happen because black workers had already been dehumanised for decades and it was seen as socially and morally acceptable.

Without going into the details of post-1994, which transferred political power without economic power, black workers’ humanity and dignity have still not been restored. The majority of them, as did many generations before them, earn slave wages. Some employers in the agriculture sector still find it acceptable to pay farmworkers with alcohol.

If there is any uncertainty about the current situation, what happened on August 16 2012 at Marikana, when police killed 34 striking mineworkers demanding a R12 500 a month minimum wage, and others died between August 10 and 20, should erase all doubt. It is only because we did not see those workers as people who should be afforded respect and dignity that, after the massacre, South Africa continued with business as usual. And, to this day, no single individual has been held accountable for the killings.

Today, labour dynamics are a reflection of our deeply divided society. More than 41% of workers earn less than R3 000 a month, and 4.6-million workers do not earn more than R2 100 a month. It is a fact that black African women continue to be the most vulnerable in the labour market as they account for 43% of those in low-skilled occupations, mainly as domestic workers. In general, most white workers, particularly professional males, earn six times more than black workers.

This is the context in which to view the announcement by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa of the proposed R3 500 national minimum wage, arrived at by a panel appointed to advise the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).

First and foremost, the underlying motivation for a national minimum wage is to reclaim black workers’ dignity as human beings and then as workers. Second, a minimum wage must deal head on with the legacy of apartheid – a structural economic crisis responsible for fiscal austerity, high interest rates, free movement of capital, economic and social wage repression, rising unemployment, inequality and poverty – to have a meaningful effect in the lives of black workers. Only such a socioeconomic policy instrument will restore the dignity of black workers and, in doing so, that of the majority of people in this country.

A question that all stakeholders in Nedlac must ask themselves, in particular business, is: Will a R3 500-a-month national minimum wage be enough for the reclamation of black workers’ humanity?

I highly doubt it. And perhaps it is naive even to think business is in a position to consider itself a major stakeholder in a process to humanise black workers and restore their dignity, and the dignity of all black South Africans, if it stands in the way of profit.

Gumani Tshimomola is a senior researcher for the Economic Freedom Fighters’ parliamentary caucus

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Gumani Tshimomola
Gumani Tshimomola, a doctoral student at Wits University focusing on the role of the Treasury in SA’s political economy, is the EFF senior researcher in parliament

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