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​Care-workers left out in the cold

Although the proposed national minimum wage of R3 500 a month may be eagerly anticipated by employees in the domestic and agricultural industries, community healthcare workers and volunteers at orphanages say they feel sidelined.

A panel’s recommendations on a minimum wage were tabled before the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) earlier this week. The panel was established by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

However, the panel said it could not include the “extremely low” wages in the “underfunded” care-work sector within the ambit of the proposed minimum wage.

It identified the care-work sector as one of the most vulnerable in the country and warned that legislating an increase in wages could risk its collapse, as it is being kept afloat by nongovernmental organisations and government grants.

“An ill-considered wage would also lead to a reduction in the provision of very important social services,” the report said.

The panel said that a separate expert panel should be convened to address poor pay in this sector precisely because the low wages were so out of sync with other pay scales, “partly as a result of low levels of government subsidy”, it said.

Community healthcare worker Zoleka Mbotshelwa has been working at the Esangweni clinic in Tembisa for six years and now earns R2 500 a month, an amount she says they had to fight for. “In 2012 we got R1 253 and, after we protested over wages, there was this big jump to what we get now.”

Mbotshelwa said she started working at the clinic because she is passionate about the health of Tembisa residents, who she helps through house calls and by monitoring their treatment regimens.

“This is not just about the money; it’s about the health of our community. Some are not well informed and can’t read English, so we translate it into our mother tongue and help them follow treatments,” she said.

But Mbotshelwa does feel betrayed by the government, which, she believes, created the impression that her sector would form part of any mooted minimum wage.

“When the MEC of health [Qedani Mahlangu] was at the Gauteng legislature last month, she said she’ll wait for the national minimum wage and the health department will adapt to that. So if we are excluded, it means nothing will change now,” she lamented.

With her current salary, Mbotshelwa can barely afford decent living conditions.

For Ugandan national Juma Sebichwu, the founder of the Malaika orphanage on De Korte Street in Johannesburg’s city centre, the situation is even worse. He opened the orphanage in 2008 and it is now home to about 75 children, with two permanent staff members and six volunteers.

“In donations from good Samaritans and government grants, we get about R7 000 a month, but expenses run to about R10 000,” Sebichwu told the Mail & Guardian. “So the volunteers only get some joy from working with children and when we can pay, it’s not more than R2 000,” he added.

Sebichwu left his job delivering vegetables to township shops from the city centre to work at the orphanage after an encounter with a hungry child living on the streets. “I looked at this child and asked; ‘Why does a child have to go through this?’ I knew giving him R2 does not make any difference, so I started this home,” he said.

Among the children at the home, Sebichwu said, are those whose families cannot afford to take care of them owing to their low salaries. He’s hopeful the enactment of the national minimum wage would reunite these families with their children. “It would make a huge difference because some families are surviving on R1 200 and would probably be able to fetch their child from the orphanage [if they were to receive R3 500 a month].”

The report’s recommendations are largely focused on improving wages for farmworkers and domestic workers over a period of two and a half years, after which bosses should be paying 90% and 70% of the R3 500 wage to those categories of worker respectively.

But 40-year-old farmworker Sissie Presence is expecting harder labour, shorter hours and more retrenchments. She’s been employed on a Paarl wine and fruit farm, where she lives with nine others in one house, for nearly 20 years, and currently earns R540 a week.

Presence said, after the 2012 De Doorns farmworkers’ strikes, the number of hours they worked was scaled back but farmers demanded higher productivity. “I’m not scared of the new wage and possible firing because we aren’t afraid of a challenge,” Presence said cautiously. “But I know [the boss] will start chasing people away and looking for reasons to fire people so when it’s in the law, I will demand my raise, ja!” she exclaimed.

For her family, in which only three people are working, a wage of R20 an hour or R3 500 a month would mean eating meat more than once every two weeks, and new clothes for her unemployed daughter’s baby.

Domestic worker Hester Stephens (63) believes that legislating a minimum wage affirms her profession as “decent work deserving decent pay”.

She’s been doing housework since the age of 15, when she had to leave grade seven to help to earn an income for her struggling family in Uniondale near Port Elizabeth. Now Stephens lives in Kenilworth in Cape Town and said, even though she already earns just more than R3 500, it’s not enough.

“If they think we will be able to get by with that money, they are making a big mistake. If you look at the R3 500, what can you actually take from that money to save for your pension?” she asked.

“They need to take us seriously and stop giving us this unnecessary salary. [President Jacob] Zuma should give me his salary and I’ll give him mine, then we’ll see if he can get by,” Stephens said.

A number of domestic helpers and farmworkers were cautiously hopeful about the proposed wage hike, but Section 27’s Ntsiki Mpulo previously told Bhekisisa, excluding the care-work sector means, that “until a national policy that regulates the conditions of community health worker employment — including remuneration — is finalised and implemented, workers who are the backbone of our health service [will] remain vulnerable and abused”.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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