THE SOUTH African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) has not welcomed the Poverty National Minimum Wage Act, which was signed into law last Friday by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The overwhelming majority of workers will not be celebrating said SAFTU, reiterating its view that the minimum level of R20 an hour is far below what anyone should have to live on. It condemns millions of workers and their families to government-sanctioned poverty. That amount was bad enough when it was first adopted in 2016.

More than two years later, when it comes into effect on 1st January 2019, it is worth even less in real terms, after the VAT increase, successive fuel price hikes, the increases in ‘sin taxes’ and the price of food, transport and other goods and services. Even President Ramaphosa admits that R20 an hour is not a living wage!

A Wits University study in 2015 calculated a poverty line that takes the costs-of-basic-needs of South Africans into account in order to link individual wages to household poverty, and derived a threshold definition for the ‘working poor’ of R4,125 in 2015 prices.

At 2018 prices that figure must be nearer R5,000 a month, R1,500 more than anyone working for a full month on the R20 an hour National Minimum Wage (NMW). Worse still, many workers will not even get this amount. The implementation of a minimum of R18 for farm workers, R15 for domestic workers and R11 for learners employed under the Skills Development Act, and workers on expanded public works programmes has been put on ice; employers will not have to pay even those pitiful amounts, as their implementation date has been indefinitely postponed to a date to be fixed by the President.

The act also provides for employers who say they cannot pay the minimum wage due to constraints in their businesses to be eligible for exemptions, so that they can keep paying below R20. Many others, particularly in the informal sector, are likely to ignore the law altogether and continue paying casual workers even lower wages for as long as they can get away with it.

SAFTU condemns equally vehemently the Labour Relations Amendment Act, also now signed into law, which makes provision for the establishment of an advisory arbitration panel supposedly to deal with ‘long and violent strike action in the interest of labour stability’ but which in reality will provide employers and government with powers to delay, frustrate and even ban strikes and picketing by workers.

This is a blatant attack on workers’ constitutional right to withdraw their labour and shifts power even more firmly into the hands of the employers who already have the upper hand in industrial disputes, especially when workers are unorganised or members of weak, ‘sweetheart’ unions.

The federation is rolling out mass action against these amendments and is seriously contemplating litigation and lodging an ILO (International Labour Organisation) complaint against the government.

SAFTU declared that it ‘condemns with contempt the leaders of COSATU, FEDUSA and NACTU who negotiated these laws and are still welcoming them, on the flimsy argument that at least some workers who are living in abject poverty will be able to live in just slightly less abject poverty, or that “anything is better than nothing”.

‘This is an outrageous position for union federations which claim to be representing workers and the poor, but are in reality helping to give credibility to a government which is lining up with business to keep wages below the poverty level.’

SAFTU declared it ‘will not give up the fight against these laws but campaign even more vigorously against such attacks on workers’ living standards and human rights.’ The federation’s national executive committee has just launched a recruitment campaign which will target the 76% of unorganised workers, which includes those most affected by these new laws.

‘One of the central demands of this campaign will be for a living wage of R12,500 a month, the amount for which the martyrs of Marikana gave their lives. We owe it to their memory to accept nothing less.’

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) has also slammed the Minimum Wage bill signed into law by Ramaphosa last Friday. ‘CEOs in South Africa are paid obscene amounts of money, whilst the workers, who create the wealth, earn peanuts.

‘Workers will earn R20 per hour, whilst CEOs will be earning an average of R8,625,’ said NUMSA spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola.

She described the R20-per-hour amount as ‘shameful’, saying it would worsen the living conditions of workers. ‘This is an indictment against the ANC government for failing to promote an agenda to genuinely improve and transform the lives of the working class,’ Hlubi-Majola said in a statement.

‘Cyril Ramaphosa has legalised slave wages and confirmed to SA corporates that it is OK to exploit African workers and pay them low wages.’ The National Minimum Wage bill is part of a package that includes amendments to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and Labour Relations Act.

The law, which will come into effect on January 1st 2019, claims to benefit about six million workers who currently earn below R3,700 per month. The Minimum Wage law, which was formulated at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), has been in the works since 2015, with parties agreeing to set the minimum hourly wage rate of R20 in 2017.

Its initial implementation date was pushed back from 1st May following a series of blunders during the bill’s drafting period. In its initial response to the proposals, the National Treasury warned that the system would affect jobs and the economy in the long term if it were to be implemented ‘recklessly’.

• The current go-slow by KwaZulu-Natal mortuary workers means that patients who die in public hospitals are often tagged and left to lie on the floor in wards, traumatising other patients. Unions and opposition parties say there is no political will to arrest the situation.

Aside from the mortuary problem, there is an oncology crisis, which the department denies exists despite the findings of the SA Human Rights Commission against MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo. Last week a long-standing dispute over wages led to the forensic pathology services staff embarking on a go-slow.

The Public and Allied Workers’ Union of SA (PAWUSA), an affiliate of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (DENOSA), said the impasse dates back to 2006, when the department took over mortuaries from the police service. PAWUSA provincial secretary Halalisani Gumede said Dhlomo’s ‘uncaring’ attitude has led to the unions resolving to intensify their action into the festive season. There were 34 bodies at Fort Napier on Monday, while Park Rynie had 14.

Gumede said bereaved families would have difficulty in getting remains for burial this weekend. He said Port Shepstone mortuary employees had booked off sick since last week, and this had prompted the health department to appeal to the provincial police for assistance to retrieve and transport bodies to the mortuary.

DENOSA provincial organiser Mandla Shabangu said the go-slow affected nurses and other staff at healthcare facilities. ‘Nurses get stressed when a patient dies in the ward because, with mortuary fridges getting full, the deceased have to be put on the floor in the ward or another available space until they are removed to the mortuary.

‘The risks of misidentification of bodies are high. Let alone the trauma our members and other patients are exposed to,’ he said. Shabangu said it was ‘revolting’ that Dhlomo would be defended by both the provincial government and the health portfolio committee, despite evidence that he was incapable of running the department.

‘For him to go to a mortuary (Fort Napier) and dissect bodies is very wrong. Every time he fails in his mandate, he runs and seeks public sympathy,’ Shabangu said.

He said they had instructed COSATU to facilitate a meeting between them and the ANC provincial leadership to seek an explanation as to why no action had been taken against Dhlomo.

The DA and IFP called for the department to present a detailed contingency plan to address the effects of the ongoing strike. The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union said it supported DENOSA’s call for heads to roll.