Striking a balance for low income earners

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Being a single mother is a challenging, every day job, especially when you are in the often overlooked informal labour sector.

Somehow Vivian Muso, 40, seems to be striking this balance while also overcoming everyday hurdles posed by patriarchy in society.

Muso from Soshanguve has for five years been a contract worker for a company that provides cleaning services in corporate offices in Pretoria’s Hatfield suburb.

SAnews caught up with the mother of three on the eve of National Worker’s Day to get a window into the life of a low income earner.

In January Muso and the estimated six million South Africans – or 47% of South Africa’s labour force – started benefitting from the country’s first National Minimum Wage Act.

Recognising that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the need to eradicate poverty and inequality government signed into law the National Minimum Wage Act as a safety net for South Africa’s low income earners.

The Act sets a floor of R20 per an hour which is an equivalent of not less than R3 500 per month, depending on the number of hours worked. This rate is subject to future yearly adjustments in terms of the National Minimum Wage Act.

The Act was signed alongside the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and Labour Relations Amendment Bill which were negotiated by National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).

These bills provide protection for low-paid workers; fair and effective competition in the labour market, and the challenges of labour instability, caused by violent strikes and the duration of strikes, and wage inequality.

“This new National Minimum Wage Act has been a great help for me to some extent. Everything is expensive though, on transport alone I spend an average of R1000 and I still have other things to balance at home,” Muso says.   

Although her shift starts at 7am, for years Muso has been waking up at 2am to catch the first local bus which takes her to her train station.

With an unreliable commuter rail system she has to take into account extra taxi fares when budgeting for the month.

Breaking down her R3 500 salary budget for SAnews, Muso said aside from the R1000 she sets aside for transport to work, she sends R500 to her two children who are currently studying at university. This R500 supplements their National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) monthly stipend.

About R300 goes towards the lunch box necessities while the rest covers her funeral cover and stokvel savings.

Despite welcoming the new increment brought by the historic Act, Muso says her salary still doesn’t cover all her needs as she would have hoped.

“Things are difficult. Somehow I seem to make it work… I don’t know how. Maybe if government made the minimum wage to be R5 500 maybe things would be better.”

Government agrees with Vivian and has acknowledged that the Act’s starting level of R20 an hour is too low and is under the current liveable income.

Government data revels that about 54% of full-time employees – 5.5 million workers – earn below the working-poor line and cannot meet their most basic needs and those of their dependents.

This has pushed inequality and working poverty which remains high as confirmed by another report titled; Overcoming poverty and inequality in South Africa commissioned by government.

The report reveals that poverty is higher among female-headed households and that black South Africans consistently bear the highest poverty burden and poverty declines with the higher levels of education.

It further found that South Africa has a dual economy where on the one hand there is a small high-skilled, high-productivity economy and on the other hand, a large low-skilled, low-productivity one.

It identifies unlocking the full potential of labour markets and promoting inclusive growth through skills creation among possible areas of intervention that will accelerate poverty and inequality reduction.

Despite these gloomy statics government has put in place progressive labour legislation, underpinned by the Constitution which will in the future change the stakes.

For example government views the historic National Minimum Wage as a support for South Africa’s fight against the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality by creating a phase-in period for low-earning workers by reducing the high inequality rates and decreasing the huge disparities in income in the national labour market in South Africa.

There needs to be a balance struck between the need to measurably improve the income of the lowest paid workers and the need to sustain and increase levels of employment for vulnerable workers such as farm workers, forestry workers, domestic workers, welfare sector and care workers.

With one in three people unemployed in South Africa Muso considers herself to be lucky.

“Yes, I don’t earn much, but I would rather work for the little that I do get than stay at home. My offices are busy with new people coming in and out every day. Who knows - maybe one day I can strike it lucky and get a person who can point me to a better paying job,” she says.  

Muso has every right to feel grateful for the opportunity if the statics are anything to go by.

The results of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the fourth quarter of 2018 released by Statistics South Africa in February, reveal that the number of employed persons increased by 149 000 to 16.5 million and the number of unemployed persons decreased by 70 000 to 6.1 million.

During the fourth quarter of 2018, the informal sector recorded employment losses of 15 000, while the formal sector recorded gains in employment.

The number of discouraged work-seekers increased by 108 000 while the number of other not economically active persons decreased by 38 000, resulting in an increase of 70 000 (up by 0.5%) in the number of people not in the labour force between the third and fourth quarters of 2018.

Muso has pinned her hopes of breaking the poverty cycle on her two children who are currently furthering their education.

Beaming with pride, Muso says her first child, who is 19, is doing her final year in Analytical Chemistry while the other, a 17-year-old, is on his second year of studying towards a Bachelor of Science majoring in mathematics at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.

As South Africa heads to the polls next week, Muso has called on the 6th government administration to do better, do more and put the workers first.

“Government must also introduce other stringent laws such as doing away with contract work as we don’t have any benefits. If the contract expires nothing is guaranteed.”

In commemorating May, which has been identified as Workers Month, government will be clamping down on worker abuse.

The Department of Labour will be on a blitz with inspections conducted across the country in some of the problematic sectors in terms of new legislation referrals. These include business and professional services, safety and security, building and construction, retail, domestic, food and beverage, contract cleaning, transport, agriculture and farming as well as the private educators.

The Department of Labour is also in the process of naming and shaming employers who fail to comply with labour laws under the new act by publishing them on the department’s website. -