During South Africa’s platinum miners’ strike that ended in June this year, I was puzzled by union members who suggested they’d rather be unemployed than earn what they described as a “low wage”. I was really startled by their remarks. It made no sense to me, not only because I have had low-wage jobs, but also because I couldn’t imagine a poor desperate South African rejecting a low-pay job in favour of an incapability to feed, clothe and house their families.
During my first year at Rhodes University, eight years ago, I was lucky enough to find temporary jobs during the holidays, mostly in gardening and construction. I had also submitted my resumé to various restaurants and clothing shops and responded to a number of job advertisements, but with no luck.
When my father told me of a family in need of someone to assist with their garden at least once a week, I thought “Thank God”. I was ecstatic and looked forward to work, long before I even knew how much I was going to be paid. What mattered to me most was that I was about to earn a wage that could, at some point, help me buy a bus ticket back to Grahamstown to continue with my Bachelor of Commerce studies. I needed the money.
My parents unfortunately did not have an opportunity to sit in a classroom. It’s one of the reasons why I value education. My father had only three years of schooling while my mother never even set a foot in school, due to her father’s very anachronistic traditional thinking.
Hence, financial challenges at home were immense. My mother was not able to work because she suffered from an illness. The disability grant she received from government was equivalent to what my father earned as a gardener. They had to keep up with raising three kids, one of whom in his first year at university.
So, for me to get up in the morning and head to work to get that low wage was very significant. At one point, my dad and I had to combine our salaries to buy groceries for the house. The situation would have been worse had my father been the only one employed at home. Even though the wages were low, the fact that more than one person was employed in the house made things much better.
In my second year at university, my parents no longer had to take care of me. After doing very well in my first-year Financial Mathematics course, I became a paid tutor, which lifted a heavy load from my parents’ shoulders.
This is why I find it really baffling when labour unions publicly suggest that it is better to be unemployed than to have a low-wage job. This is simply not true. Being employed makes a huge difference; not only because of income, but also because of the sense of dignity that goes along with having a job. Many parents lose their dignity and their children’s respect because of not being able to afford to take care of them. The emotional stress and hopelessness that results from this can be devastating.
Millions of South Africans are unemployed. I’m confident that they’re at home not because they have rejected jobs that offer low wages but because they cannot even find a low-wage job, no matter how long and hard they have been looking.
South Africa’s unemployment rate currently hovers around 25%, but this statistic excludes people who have given up searching for work. The expanded unemployment rate, according to Statistics South Africa, now stands at 35.8% - which, I believe, is a serious crisis.
Many of the unemployed who have lost hope could well resort to alcohol and other types of drugs, which will further inflict a huge damage to our society.
Job creation should be at the forefront of all initiatives in South Africa. It’s a matter that needs urgent attention. To surmount poverty, more and more jobs need to be created. And the driver of this job creation will not be government, it will be the private sector, because due to very limited resources, government is incapable of creating enough long-term jobs.
Growing up at home, thanks to those low-wage jobs that helped us put bread on the table, we were not as poor as we would have been without them. My jobs were not protected by unions and there were no national minimum wage laws. If that had been the case, I would not have found any of those jobs. This is the situation faced by millions of hopeless South Africans today. And now that the Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is pushing for the implementation of national minimum wage laws, God knows what will happen to multitudes of poor people who rely on low-wage jobs to survive.
When a minimum wage is imposed, or when a higher sector-specific wage is negotiated by unions, it means that poor unemployed people are prevented from negotiating a mutually beneficial relationship in which they would have a job instead of being destitute.
The levels of inequality in South Africa are extreme and completely undesirable. Legislating a higher minimum wage for those who already have jobs will result in employers becoming less able to hire those without jobs.
At home, half a loaf was better than no bread. This is true in every family. The idea parroted by unionists and their followers that unemployment is better than a low-wage job is utterly flawed. I have no idea whatsoever as to how they reach this illogical conclusion. When most adults have jobs in a household of more than ten people it makes a huge difference when compared to a situation where only one family member is employed. That is why we need to focus on job creation. We need to stop buying questionable ideas dreamt up by unionists who claim to be speaking on behalf of those who have nothing when in fact they are speaking for themselves and their employed members at the expense of millions of unemployed people.
Much of the rhetoric uttered by labour unions in public is simply not true. This includes the claim that they represent unemployed people. Unions have made it extremely difficult for unemployed people to find jobs as evidenced by union opposition to the Youth Wage Subsidy and other government initiatives aimed at addressing the unemployment crisis.
The question must be asked: Other than making it difficult for people to find jobs, what have the unions done for the 8.3 million unemployed people in South Africa?
Author: Phumlani M UMajozi is currently forming an FMF Youth organisation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the FMF.