The experts have spoken. R20 an hour or R3500 a month. The response so far has ranged from reserved support to rejection. The writer’s premise is that the debate is compromised because people who are in work should not be ‘impoverished employees’ and that people who want to work should be able to find work. Therein lies the paradox. There is no reliable way to ensure that people have jobs and a minimum wage as the proposed level does not deliver adequate earnings when they have one.

When trade union agreements are brought into the debate things get even more complicated. In some sectors employees have become, in the words of an Italian theorist, the ‘employed aristocracy’.  Such agreements do little to ensure the well-being of the unemployed.  There are instances where mechanization and automation have been employed in order to obviate the need for staff, which was partly the reason for jobless growth when the economy did grow.

What then is the answer? It is the writer’s view that prescribed minimum wages are essential in the long term.  South Africa’s current stage of development results in a substantial proportion of the potential economically active population having no job and little chance of getting one. Consequently it would be more constructive to allow worker and employer to agree earnings at a micro-economic level.  With this in mind society should use the protections afforded by current legislation to ensure wages are paid, women are not harassed, working hours are restricted, violence is punished and environmental and safety standards are enforced.  Then, when economic growth has reached an appropriate stage minimum wages at an ethical level could be introduced.

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