A National Minimum Wage To Maximise Exploitation

Vol 23 No 1

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The Deputy President signed the National Minimum Wage agreement on 7 February 2017 at the offices of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) . It is set to come into effect on 1 May 2018 and pegs the lowest earnings at R20/hour. Loopholes inside this minimum wage plan show that it is aimed at maximising super-exploitation.

Despite the best efforts of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, his announcement contained nothing for workers to celebrate. How is it possible to be  jovial about the abject misery of 6,6 million super-exploited workers?  This, he could not hide from the spotlight of the world media. Why must 41% of workers in our wealthy country be forced to survive on this  pittance?  The  fat report of  the National Minimum Wage Commission never answered this cardinal question. Judging from the theatrics of Ramaphosa and the experts on their National Minimum Wage Commission, it is a question which they want to dodge. He looked like someone implicated in a scandal and forced into a public confession; a wealthy man embarrassed to tell workers that there is no end in sight to their suffering.

Ramaphosa conceded, repeatedly, that joblessness will worsen if there is only a slight rise in the national minimum wage. But he echoed the same logic to argue why a living wage is not on government’s agenda. Yet he did not pinpoint any chief obstacles and was quick to elaborate on strings of benefits from the minimum wage for capitalists. Companies can apply for countless exemptions. Workers employed in government’s farcical public works programme, with its pitiful stipends, are excluded.

COSATU did not sign the agreement. Neither did they oppose the flawed plan. They issued a defensive press statement a few days afterwards, betraying their stance with sugar-coated poison: “The NMW is a product of the workers’ living wage struggles since the 1980s, and the product of continuous pressure by workers and their federation COSATU.” (S. Pamla, COSATU National Spokesperson, 9/2/2017).

It is not surprising for these union bureaucrats to talk-up this agreement as a victory for workers. After all, they have been part of the behind the scenes wheeling-and-dealing. With ease they have slipped into their old job to shackle workers to the bankrupt politics of the ANC. In their view  “…both President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa deserve equal credit for the strides that have been made by government to introduce a legislated National Minimum Wage.” (COSATU National Spokesperson, 9/2/2017) Their praise for the ANC literally knows no boundaries!

A week later, Statistics South Africa confirmed the shocking jobless numbers: 26.5% of our workforce is without a job (it leaps to 35.6% when they count in so-called discouraged workers). In other countries this is known as depression-era unemployment levels (above 25%). This means that South African working people have endured a depression for decades!

Research published in The Financial Mail has revealed the growing divide between workers and bosses. This magazine reports that “…the average executive earned 21 times the average worker’s salary. But when bonuses were included, CEOs pocketed a total package 47 times bigger than their average worker’s pay.” (Financial Mail, 16/2/ 2017).

Basic pay-gap studies only expose a tiny part of income inequality. They obscure the capital-labour relation that forms the basis for extracting profit from exploitation. These calculations overlook a critical fact: the minority that own capital (bosses) are not the same as the working majority who must live from the sale of their labour power (workers). In other words, if workers as the primary producers do not seize control of the means of production, they cannot uplift their working and living conditions. But this requires fighting for state power with a political organisation firmly grounded on the demands and aspirations of working people.