All hail the adoption of wage bill

Protesters begin to gather in Newton, downtown Johannesburg ahead of the march against the national minimum wage and the proposed changes in the labour laws.
Protesters begin to gather in Newton, downtown Johannesburg ahead of the march against the national minimum wage and the proposed changes in the labour laws.
Image: Penwell Dlamini

A small but significant step towards reducing the high levels of inequality in SA was taken in the National Assembly yesterday.

The passing of the National Minimum Wage Bill will not relieve our country of its dubious honour as the most unequal society in the world, nor would it finally put an end to the perennial apartheid wage system.

But it is an important step in the right direction.

Without doubt, the minimum wage of R20 an hour is not enough and can never be mistaken for a living wage.

But reality is that more than six million workers earn far less than that amount under the existing labour regime that, for most jobs, has no regulated minimum wage. By making the bill into law, parliament will be raising the salaries of 6.4 million South Africans - improving the living standards of millions of households.

As much as we agree with those who feel that R20 an hour does not go far enough, we think that it should be treated as a start. That the country now has a minimum wage, something that has been a demand of generations of organised workers since the 1950s, is in itself a victory.

It demonstrates that when government, business and labour work together, it is possible to find solutions to the country's economic problems.

For decades, organised business resisted the trade union movement's demand for such a measure, arguing that it would destroy jobs.

However, the approach of the National Minimum Wage Commission, set up by stakeholders to look into the feasibility of such a move for a middle-income country that is South Africa, has been a thoughtful one, taking into account the needs of the working class while ensuring that businesses are not forced to shut down in the process.

However, this victory would be meaningless if it is not followed by other measures aimed at improving the economy's performance and ensuring that economic opportunities are accessible to all. For real economic freedom can only come about in an environment where enterprises are allowed to thrive and, in return, are able to pay living wages to their employees.

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