The South African parliament has signed off on a minimum wage bill that will see clothing and textile workers receive a wage hike to ZAR20 (US$1.50), but the move has left unions divided with some calling the increase “outrageous”.

The introduction of a national minimum wage to ZAR20 per hour sees the wages of between four and six million South Africans rise, according to the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union.

“The introduction of a National Minimum Wage (NMW) is a victory for many vulnerable workers: it will put more money in the pockets of millions of farm, domestic, retail, restaurant, hairdressing, forestry, furniture, cleaning and other vulnerable, exploited and impoverished workers,” said a press release from the SACTWU. “The NMW will also benefit workers in the clothing, textile, footwear and leather (CTFL) industry, particularly some clothing workers in peri-urban areas and home-textiles workers who earn less than R20 per hour.”

The bill was approved by parliament back in May, after being proposed in 2016, but had to be passed to parliament’s upperhouse for ratification. It becomes law once signed.

“Although this wage is not yet a living wage, its positive impact will still help many millions of workers to better look after their families. By increasing their buying power, the NMW will also drive demand and stimulate the economy. This must be welcomed. Nevertheless, we will continue to fight for a living wage for our members, using this NMW as a platform,” said the SACTWU.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), however, rejected the increase, calling it “outrageous”.

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“The South African Federation of Trade Unions reiterates its view that the minimum level of ZAR20 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 1 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 the President admits that ZAR20 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 ZAR4,125 in 2015 prices.

“At 2018 prices that figure must be nearer ZAR5000 a month, ZAR1500 more than anyone working for a full month on the ZAR20 an hour NMW.”

SAFTU also said the act provided exemptions for employers who could not pay the minimum wage due to business constraints meaning many workers would continue to be paid under ZAR20 an hour.

It also condemned the Labour Relations Amendment Act, which has been signed into law which allows the establishment of an advisory arbitration panel which can deal with “long and violent strike action in the interest of labour stability”.

The South African garment sector is known for striking regularly, particularly in relation to discontentment where wages are concerned.

Thousands of footwear workers were on strike in July demanding a higher wage increase than was being offered by employers. 

SAFTU says the panel will only allow for “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 complaint against our government.”