South Africa: A new dawn — or an impending storm By Terry Bell

31 May 2019 — Terry Bell Writes

Minimum wage legislation, introduced on January 1, was supposed to herald the first pale rays of a promised new dawn. This promise would be consolidated once the ANC again held the reins of national power with Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa in the top job.

However it was obvious from the first announcement last year about the minimum wage levels that they probably signalled storm clouds rather than any pale rays of a new dawn. This despite the fact that the pay deal was concluded with the agreement of three trade union federations.

Over the past week and more, with the commentariat focussing on the delay by the newly sworn-in president to marshal his ministerial team, the first, largely unreported, challenge to the minimum wage arrived. That it came in the agricultural sector is hardly surprising.

Equally unsurprising was the fact that Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) was to the forefront in supporting this challenge, a strike at the historic Oak Valley estate near the town of Grabouw in the Western Cape. The strike was launched by members one of the smaller affiliates of Saftu, a federation founded in April 2017 when the minimum wage debate was officially well underway.

The debate was conducted in the clumsily titled tripartite negotiating forum, the National Development, Labour and Economic Council (Nedlac) from which Saftu is still excluded. Cosatu, Fedusa (Federation of Unions) and Nactu (National Council of Trade Unions) together with representatives of government and business, agreed, after years of haggling, to R20 an hour or, in round terms, R3 500 a month.

But there were also exceptions to this rule, among them farm workers, where the hourly rate was set at R18 while the agreed rate for domestic workers was R15 an hour. Exemptions also apply: companies making less than 6% of profit, need not pay the minimum.

As some trade unions — often belatedly — realised, this effectively undermined the whole project, especially in a country where the wage and welfare gap is probably the biggest in the world. It all comes down to how a company organises its pay structure and how it “cooks” the books.

Domestic workers in metropolitan areas, who usually have long and costly distances to travel to and from work, also seem to have been short-changed, their minimum hourly rate dropping by 28 cents. Domestic workers in rural towns, who can mostly walk to work, received an increase of R1.69 an hour.

Given the usually solitary work situation of the predominantly female domestic workforce it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to organise collective protests, especially at a time of great joblessness. A similar situation seemed, historically, to apply to farm workers, many of them employed on a seasonal basis.

But that changed in late 2012 when, initially in the De Doorns area of the Western Cape, widespread protests about wages and conditions erupted on the farms. The minimum farmworker wage was — and remains — set by ministerial determination and was then R69 a day.

In the wake of the protests, a new ministerial determination of R105 a day was set. Under the latest dispensation the minimum wage for an eight-hour day is R144. However, many farm workers complain that it is not unusual for farmers to recoup at least part of this wage increase by charging for electricity, water and other services for workers resident on farms.

However, many — mostly seasonal — workers do not live on the farms, but in the growing sprawl of informal settlements in the major agricultural areas. The demand that has now emerged in Grabouw is for R250 a day or between R5 000 and R6 000 a month.

This action in the lush Elgin valley may signal the as yet distant rumbling of a coming storm. But it has also highlighted wider problems facing organised labour, including the right — enshrined in legislation — of employers to hire “replacement labour”.

When this provision was included in the Labour Relations Act, a minority of union activists maintained that it turned the LRA into a “scab charter”. This issue is again being raised, along with the new picketing rules that are likely to cause considerable tension at times of labour disputes.

Says Vavi: “The CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) has imposed a rule that the workers can picket, but they must be about 1.2 km away from the company gate. This renders the strike utterly ineffective.”

However it is not only to the labour front that the purveyors of a promised new dawn 
should pay close heed. And here Grabouw also provides an excellent example.

It comes in one of the new six-part “Story of a Small Town” series of documentary films that deals with Grabouw. One of the clearest messages coming from interviewed farm workers is that they and their children see no future in farming.

Given the history of exploitation and the conditions in which generations of farm workers have had to live, this is understandable. But it is also deeply worrying and another indication that the small signs of a new dawn may merely be the very distant lightening flashes of an impending and damaging storm.

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