Minimum wage: SA moves to calm labour market
South Africa’s proposals to stabilise the labour market by introducing a national minimum wage and curtailing strike action have received mixed reviews, just days before ratings agencies are scheduled to decide whether to downgrade the nation’s credit rating.
The country’s biggest labour union has dismissed the recommended minimum wage of R3 500 a month announced by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on 20 Novemeber as “an insult”. Economists such as Christie Viljoen at KPMG in Cape Town say many businesses will regard the pay level as too high, even as they welcome proposals for strike balloting and a limit on indefinite strikes. “Local and foreign investors will welcome plans to make sure that our labour environment is less violent and less prone to elongated demands,” Viljoen said by phone. “I am not sure of this 3 500 rand. It will be very difficult to convince the majority of business organisations to accept the minimum wage at that level.” Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, which are due to deliver revised assessments on the South Africa’s debt in the next two weeks, have cited labour upheaval, strikes and laws that discourage companies from hiring as potential risk factors to the country’s rating - issues the government says it’s intent on addressing. South Africa is ranked at the lowest investment grade level by S&P, while Moody’s rates its debt one level higher.
While South Africa was found to be the 47th-best place to do business out of 138 countries ranked in the World Economic Forum’s 2016-17 Global Competitiveness report, the efficiency of its labour markets ranked 97th. Business executives canvassed by the Geneva-based forum rated South Africa’s restrictive labour regulations as the second-most problematic factor for doing business in South Africa after government bureaucracy.
Ramaphosa said that a panel of experts commissioned by the National Economic Development and Labor Council, known as Nedlac, which promotes negotiations among unions, government and business, recommended the minimum wage to be phased in over two years. He also cited broad agreement that unions should ballot their members before going on strike and that work stoppages shouldn’t be allowed to continue indefinitely.
For many businesses the minimum wage would signal a large rise in costs because many South Africans currently earn less than R3 500 a month, Viljoen said. Some labour leaders see the proposed minimum wage as too low. “We reject this with the contempt it deserves,” Irvin Jim, general-secretary of the 330 000-member National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, or Numsa, said by phone. “It is a known fact in this country white workers are paid R20 000 and above, and the blacks are languishing between R3 700 and R4 500.” The Congress of South African Trade Unions, whose affiliate unions represents 1.9 million workers, and the Federation of Unions of South Africa, which speaks for 560 000 employees, took part in the talks with government and business representatives on the minimum wage and other labour reforms. Jim’s Numsa, which was expelled from the government-aligned Cosatu three years ago for criticising the ruling African National Congress and its leader President Jacob Zuma, didn’t participate. “The important thing is that clearly South Africa is now going to have a legislated minimum wage,” Sdumo Dlamini, Cosatu’s president, said by phone. “It’s very significant now that there is a proposed figure around which we can consult and then take a view.” Cosatu had previously suggested a minimum wage of R4 500 to R5 300. The labour federation’s central executive committee is due to discuss the proposals announced by Ramaphosa at a three-day meeting that began on 21 November.
“How you eventually get to a figure that is acceptable to everybody will depend on engagement and collaboration among our key stakeholders,” Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said in an interview in Secunda, east of Johannesburg, on 21 November. “At least now you have a figure at the table. I think it’s a signal of progress.” While Ramaphosa initially described the R3 500 minimum wage as a “magic figure”, he later said the amount was open to negotiation.
The proposed minimum wage would do little to address racially based inequality that dates back to the era of white minority rule, which ended in 1994, and is only intended to appease ratings agencies, according to Jim. Many companies can afford to pay more than the government is proposing and appropriate pay scales should be determined on an industry-by-industry basis, he said.
Nedlac is due to hold further discussions on the minimum wage and other labor reforms before they are published for public comment. Khanyisile Kweyama, the chief executive of Business Unity South Africa which represents business in Nedlac, said the group is consulting its members on the minimum wage and didn’t yet have a view on whether it was appropriate. “On the issues of labour stability and efforts to review strike activity, we are very happy about that,” she said by phone. “It’s important for the rating agencies as well.” Most formal sector businesses already pay their workers more than the proposed minimum wage and won’t be affected, while many small companies may be hit by rising labour costs, Mike Schussler, chief economist at Johannesburg-based research group Economists.co.za, said by phone. “They will look at doing things without so much labour,” he said. “This will not be conducive to job creation.”