Members of Parliament in the National Assembly continue to hold a variety of views on the proposed national minimum wage’s potential to reduce poverty and inequality in South Africa.

To mark Workers’ Day (celebrated on 1 May) the National Assembly held a debate on the topic: Celebrating 100 years of Nelson Mandela – restoration of workers’ rights to dignity through the national minimum wage. 

Opening the debate, the Minister of Labour, Ms Mildred Oliphant, said the national minimum wage will make a big difference to the majority of vulnerable workers, which she estimated at around six million workers.

“Whilst the introduction of the national minimum wage may not mean a lot for those who are well looked after in the world of work, for the majority of the vulnerable workers, in fact over six million of them, the national minimum wage will make a huge difference.

“We all agree and are mindful of the fact that the proposed minimum wage is by no means a living wage, but for all intents and purposes, it remains an important and timely policy intervention. It also augurs well as a tool to promote social justice, which has remained a pipe dream for many,” said the Minister.

“The journey of the minimum wage starts with the Freedom Charter, where it states, among other things, that there shall be a national minimum wage in a democratically governed South Africa,” she explained, adding that the national minimum wage was designed by and large to benefit the low-paid and vulnerable workers in the economy.

“As it evolves it may at some point reach a level where it may be considered a living wage. All we are trying to do is make a start and the current proposition is by all accounts a good start,” she said.

On marking Workers’ Day, the Minister said for many South Africans the day brings back both bitter and sweet memories. “It is on this day when we are reminded of the pain, struggle and grief that colonialism and apartheid oppression brought to bear to millions of working people.”

National Assembly Member of the African Democratic Party (ACDP) Mr Steve Swart agreed with the minister that such a wage could go a long way in reducing poverty and inequality.

“The ACDP recognises the vital role that the national minimum wage can play in reducing poverty and inequality. It has been widely acknowledged as an important intervention to assist low-paid workers and, if properly implemented, has the potential to lift the earnings of literally millions of low-paid workers,” said Mr Swart.

Mr Michael Bagraim of the Democratic Alliance is of the view that a universal minimum wage will have costly consequences and will lead to inflexible labour laws and regulatory bias against employment of poorly skilled workers. “Today we have almost 9.2 million people unemployed and we are about to embark upon disastrous legislation that will cause at least a further 750 000 jobs to be lost,” he said.

Since the implementation of the Labour Relations Act among a “plethora of forward-thinking” labour laws drafted in 1995 under the guidance of late former President Nelson Mandela, Mr Bagraim opined, the country has “gone backwards”.

It does not help to have some of the best laws in the world if they are ineffective in the workplace, he argued, adding that South Africa’s labour laws were like a beautiful car with no engine.

“Our labour laws have acted as a handbrake to job creation and the labour regulatory authority appears to have done everything in its power to not only cause our workforce to dwindle but to stop businesses creating more employment positions.

The Portfolio Committee on Labour has referred the National Minimum Wage Bill back to the department for redrafting to include inputs from stakeholders made during public hearings.

Sakhile Mokoena
4 May 2018