It has been almost two years since 143 workers from the University of Western Cape were dismissed from their employment during the strike action that swept through universities across South Africa. These workers were outsourced to a company, Securitas, and have had no access to recourse.
Unlike their counterparts at the University of Cape Town, there has been no amnesty or transitional justice process to mediate the urgency of their struggle – and more recently the CCMA has sided with Securitas in its decision to fire these workers. For many of them, unemployment continues to be a stark reality and any struggle for greater job security and improved wages was stripped away through outsourcing.
This reality is one facing numerous workers across South Africa, where informal work contracts and increasing precariousness from VAT hikes, levies and inflation make the new minimum wage increase to R20 per hour an insult in the workers' struggle for survival.
Workers are told to be grateful for jobs in the face of great unemployment, but this trope does not recognise how the little workers earn is extended to families across the country. Similarly, there is little acknowledgement of the grave inequalities that exist with CEOs making millions of rands such as at Steinhoff – often unregulated and undertaxed – and who are themselves a large part of the problem of worker precariousness.
Since its inception in post-apartheid public discourse, the labour struggle has been framed by some as one linked to efficiency – a noble concept used to assign the value of work, sometimes hidden behind constructs of power, elitism and classism. The value of the white-collar CEO is signalled by (usually) his years of experience, his MBA degree from a leading institution and his business savvy measured by profits.
Masked within the covert judgements, however, is a particular brand of patriarchal heteronormativity, including a healthy dosage of privilege: that the definition of efficiency is merited purely by the economic output at lower monetary cost, and thus any increase in minimum wage must take into consideration the societal costs to economic development. However, investigations into the relative economic efficiency of CEOs earning amounts hundreds of times higher than those of their lowest earning employees, do not consider the detriment to broader society of such economic inequalities.
Perusing the trenches of website comments sections, and social media reveals the debate surrounding the new minimum wage proposals are framed purely in terms of the efficiency of workers – as if this does not exist within an ecosystem of privilege within the global political economy.
During the negotiations to end apartheid and transition into a democratic dispensation, cooperative ventures (such as the National Economic and Development Council) were forged by the ANC to ensure collaboration between government, labour and business in the realisation of economic growth. As time has passed, these gains have accrued mostly to business and politicians – as the line between the two has blurred – with bodies like NEDLAC hamstrung to make little headway in the interests of the mostly black working class in South Africa.
The challenge of change continues not only because the interests of black workers are not carried by their corollaries in the upper echelons of government, but also because the ownership profile listed on the JSE remains understudied and largely untransformed. Furthermore, black women are more likely to be unemployed or employed in the informal economy to this day.
The challenge is not just racial diversity, but also gender diversity – both of which require a commitment to rethinking the function of economic efficiency. As the world reels in anger at the revelation that 1 percent of its population controls half of its wealth, there is an opportunity for South Africans to reimagine economic efficiency through new parameters that may meaningfully address our own historical legacies of resourcing elite wealth with the poverty of the masses.
One such way to do this is to move public discourse away from analysing the profit-driven bottom line as the only indicator of success for big corporates. Internal income equity and social investments that address structural challenges in collaboration with civil society are some other measures that should determine efficiency. A progressive tax regime, including meaningful amendments to Capital Gains Tax and Corporate taxes, along with legislation that regulates the maximum earnings of CEOs also present opportunities to indicate a policy commitment to overall societal efficiency that views corporates as part of an ecosystem.
Unfortunately, regulation of the minimum wage that does not take into consideration its very real structural impacts on working class and unemployed families will ultimately make little difference in the bold goals to end poverty and inequality as articulated in the National Development Plan. One challenge of the minimum wage to policymakers is not only output efficiency and competitiveness, it is also one of commitment to make tangible the South African welfare state.
Taken in isolation, the truth is that a single African country, even with an economy as relatively big as South Africa's, will have limited scope for large taxation increases on corporates that can easily move capital across borders and syphon earnings to ill-regulated havens within seconds.
However, the African Free Trade Agreement offers prospects for regional collaboration that may give more power to African states to shape the agenda for taxation – including for South African companies that have since moved to be listed overseas.
The first step to making meaningful the Trade Agreement, I would argue, is an outright commitment on the part of policymakers for a more comprehensive view of efficiency – that prioritises the struggle of black female workers in the continent and delegitimises the assumption that the costs of structural inequality, fuelled by the current capitalist organisation of the economy, are relatively low.
Rather, we see in the workers struggle for living wages and their mobilisation for equitable distributions of the gains made off their bodies, a great cost to society: of lives (like those lost in Marikana), upward mobility (like those lost for outsourced workers in universities), and of human dignity for those who rise earlier than others to travel the greatest distance to be paid the least.
This is the greatest cost of such a framing of efficiency: it is the beating of structural violence on those expected to pull up their bootstraps and work in a system that promises equal opportunities, but with higher hurdles for those who need the jump the most.
This opinion piece was originally published by Huffington Post.