Big business came under fire this week for skipping an important minimum wage event. The business and government-led teams representing Nedlac – the consensus-seeking body comprising government, business, labour and civil society – declined to attend a symposium on the single national minimum wage that was held at the University of the Witwatersrand.
This highlighted the divide that has deadlocked Nedlac talks on the establishment of a single national minimum wage.
This deadlock means millions of vulnerable and poorly paid local workers will continue to be left out of the net that a national minimum wage would otherwise provide.
Vanessa Phala, a Business Unity SA (Busa) director and part of the business team in the Nedlac talks, said the no-show at the symposium was because of a simple scheduling clash.
“Busa could not attend the symposium because we had our own social and transformation policy committee,” she said.
Talks at Nedlac on the national minimum wage have halted despite an unofficial mandate to have something ready for President Jacob Zuma to announce in his state of the nation address on Thursday.
Everything points to business and government eyeing a wage floor that is worlds apart from the R4 500 a month endorsed by Cosatu, the Economic Freedom Fighters and others as an absolute minimum.
This compares with the existing sectoral minimums of between R2 000 and R3 000 a month, which only cover selected “vulnerable” sectors.
The organisers, the Wits National Minimum Wage Research Initiative, wrote in an email to delegates they “regard the rebuffing of an opportunity for constructive public engagement as unfortunate”.
The work coming out of the Wits unit has apparently met with steely resistance from the non-union parties in Nedlac.
“The decision by business representatives within the Nedlac task team to represent our research as attached to labour is one of a number of attempts to sideline it,” said Gilad Isaacs, coordinator of the Wits unit.
“Perhaps this is because the evidence produced does not support the introduction of an ultralow national minimum wage,” he added.
The representatives of business at Nedlac had become increasingly hostile to the body because it had moved the debate towards an ambitious level for the minimum wage, Isaacs said.
Busa’s Phala dismissed this, saying there was no grudge and that “the research conducted by Wits was presented through the labour constituency to Nedlac, and that all constituencies provided their comments”.
The Wits unit’s voluminous work is not officially commissioned for the Nedlac process, but it has managed to become one of the most visible local attempts to answer pressing questions about what a minimum wage would achieve.
The unit’s work thus far includes modelling that shows even high minimum wages would have overwhelmingly positive economic effects at the cost of very few unskilled jobs.