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A living wage is the goal

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This is a sad indictment on our governments past and present, as well as labour

PICTURE: THOMAS HOLDER. REPORTER: DANEEL KNOETZE

During Freedom Day week one of the issues dominating the national discourse has been the proposed national minimum wage.

This tool with the potential to rapidly and significantly improve the lives of the millions of vulnerable workers was mooted soon after the formation of Cosatu in 1985.

A few years later, the dawning of democracy spurred hopes that the first democratic government would implement this measure which had been part of economic life in many progressive countries around the world for decades.

But it was not until recent years that tangible progress could be seen. Still, 24 years after democracy, South Africa has no legislation prescribing the income below which vulnerable workers should be protected from falling. This is a sad indictment on our governments past and present, as well as labour.

As we look back to April 27, 1994, we must accept the harsh fact that South Africa is not yet among the progressive economies that have adopted the caring strategy of a national minimum wage. But finally there is hope and some real action.

On Freedom Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa accepted valid criticism from some labour unions of the proposed minimums of R20 an hour or R3 500 a month.

He admitted R20 an hour was not a “living wage”. He agreed the measure would not end income inequality. But, he correctly said it would provide a foundation from which to work towards a living wage for all workers, something experts have found to be far removed from the economic realities in present South Africa. It would only be a start, a welcome and important beginning.

Business, government, labour and civil society should take the formation of this wage floor foundation as an opportunity and a challenge, a call to united and concerted action to make the living wage dream a reality in this country while protecting and promoting the economy’s ability to create more jobs.

This is not a panacea to all our socio-economic problems. Labour will have to fight on for decent pay and working conditions using tried and tested tools such as collective bargaining and sectoral determination. And the government still needs to do much more to foster inclusive growth and sustainable transformation.

If implemented, the minimum wage would instantly and significantly improve the income of about 6.6 million workers, the president underlined.

It would be an unprecedented and very welcome move as most of those lowly paid workers are women who are known to spend most of their earnings on their families.

This would give the more than half of the country’s citizens trapped in poverty more reason to celebrate our freedom. It would be an historic day for South Africa, the implementation of a demand made at the Congress of the People in 1955.