Is something really better than nothing?

Sodden, in a week of drought-breaking rain, they stood in wretched queues waiting for transport of some kind during the Metrorail strike. Sympathy went to them, along no doubt with anger towards the strikers.

I asked neighbours, desperate for transport, why they didn’t ring their employers and explain they could not get to work. They were horrified. Though they had been employed on contract for many years, they thought their employers might deduct that day from their pay, every cent of which they need. “But surely that’s illegal” I cried. They didn’t know; and they were not prepared to risk even asking. The job, and the employer’s absolute power over them, is too basic, too essential, to take any chances.

Meanwhile, my friend Zach tells me he has lost his job. He supports his late brother’s two children, his sister, who lives with HIV, her daughter, and a younger brother. How did he lose his job? While he was driving his employer’s vehicle for a work assignment, a tyre burst and the car rolled. He spent a week in hospital, and needs on-going physiotherapy. When he went back to work, the boss fired him.

Illegal? Probably. He is complaining to the CCMA, but due to his confusion from concussion —not to mention his fear and depression —his application may be out of time. In any case, the CCMA has a long waiting list.

Down the road they are doing some house repairs. The contractor picks up labourers from the queue of men by the side of the road. They get R50 a day. They think they are lucky when the lady of the house gives them a sandwich at lunch-time—that adds 10% in value to their pay.
And still we hear that our labour laws are too strong. Still the IMF says we need “structural change” —meaning we need to allow employers to treat people as badly as the worst employers in the world to become competitive. They say if we were allowed to pay people anything they would accept, on any terms they would accept, we would end unemployment. They do not name a minimum they would regard as OK. Anything, they say, is better than nothing when you are poor.

You know the argument. It says that when the supply of anything (including people) exceeds the demand, the price must drop until it reaches the point where the supply equals the demand, when you have full employment. It is the kind of thing that gets economists a bad name. It suggests that there is no difference between people and shoes —which can be discarded or given away when they can’t be sold. It suggests that the bargain struck between unemployed unskilled labourers in South Africa, and an employer, is no different from that being struck between a buyer and a seller of things like antiques or a property in Newlands. You picture two competitive fellows squaring up to each other, calculating in their minds exactly how much the other would concede, and what tactics to employ. Does that remind you of the posture of the men beside the road; or the women who will accept any treatment rather than even ask about their rights? Hardly.

The fact is that there is a minimum income below which people cannot sustain themselves, let alone a family. That minimum is about the intake of calories that keeps body and soul together. In our industrial society it must include funds to pay for heating and lighting, education, rent, clothes and transport. You cannot do without any of these, because in our industrial society you cannot cut fuel from the forest, teach your children at home, make your clothes from animal skins or walk to work.

If a family gets less than that minimum —and at least half our African compatriots have an income less than that minimum —they must beg, borrow or steal what they lack. Begging usually starts in the neighbourhood, with the result that the already poor are now subsidising the destitute. It goes out to the street intersections. And it ends in stealing —crime. For which we blame the thieves and for which we all pay.

Please tell me where I am wrong? Have I missed something? Is my logic faulty? Am I being sentimental?

Then how can we agree to our government’s giving way to pressure from employers, large and small, to loosen even further the laws that protect employees from exploitation? No doubt they will be hearing hard luck stories about small employers who have been taken to the CCMA on trivial trumped-up changes; and how others would employ three people for the price of one, if only they could pay each of them less than a living wage.

I hope they are also listening to the millions of stories from people who are accepting shocking conditions of work, and appalling wages just because they are so desperate for work. True, the CCMA is there for illegal exploitation —if you have the confidence, the savings and the support to wait. But if the laws were slacker than they are now, even the CCMA could not help them.

Instead of going down the cul-de-sac of losing hard won rights, we must seek an employment policy that works without punishing workers. That involves finding the finance to create jobs where they are really needed —in the service sector. It can be done, and it will save the soul of our democracy.

About the author
Margaret Legum helped found, and is chairperson of, SANE, the South African New Economics Foundation. She studied economics at Rhodes University and Cambridge. She and her late husband, Colin, were banned from South Africa in 1962 after Margaret had launched a call for international sanctions against the apartheid regime. She now lives in the fishing village of Kalk Bay outside Cape Town and works as a lecturer and journalist.
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