The magic wage num­ber

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

‘This is not a liv­ing wage. We have to be clear on that.”

So said Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa at the re­lease of an ex­pert panel’s rec­om­men­da­tion for the long-awaited na­tional min­i­mum wage.

He called it the “magic num­ber” we have been wait­ing for. For many, it seems like more of a cheap trick. The R20-an-hour pro­posal is not rev­o­lu­tion­ary, not least be­cause it only comes to R20 in 2019, when in­fla­tion will have sig­nif­i­cantly eased the way al­ready.

It draws a line not far from where most em­ploy­ers would have been any­way. By then it will be even fur­ther be­low what many now con­sider a min­i­mal liv­ing wage: R4 500.

The con­sid­ered view of this panel – a group of aca­demics that no one could ac­cuse of lean­ing to the right in eco­nomic af­fairs – is es­sen­tially that pay­ing many peo­ple less than what they re­quire to live on is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for the func­tion­ing of the South African eco­nomic sys­tem.

Some peo­ple call this “su­per ex­ploita­tion”. To most peo­ple to­day it is sadly just com­mon wisdom.

Will this magic num­ber lead to wide­spread job losses? Prob­a­bly not. Will it fun­da­men­tally change the for­tunes of the work­ing poor? Not any time soon.

All those who were ex­pect­ing some­thing sig­nif­i­cantly higher than the min­i­mum wages that al­ready ex­ist now, need to take stock of what the pro­posal does de­liver.

The most mean­ing­ful thing about this magic num­ber is prob­a­bly how we raise it when the time comes and con­di­tions are ripe.

And when, gods will­ing, we are no longer liv­ing in mor­tal ter­ror of rat­ings agen­cies.

It is a mech­a­nism among the tools that al­ready ex­ist and that are still be­ing built. If the real wage is not yet a liv­ing wage, then the so­cial wage has to pick up the slack.

Un­like the magic num­ber, this re­quires a state that works.

It re­quires Na­tional Health In­surance, pub­lic trans­port, free and sub­sidised ed­u­ca­tion and lots more be­sides.

It is time to stop talk­ing about these things in iso­la­tion.

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