It is Christmas time again. Despite the crisis, British people are spending nearly 84 billion euros on seasonal shopping, up 1 per cent from last year. But on the other side of the shop windows, it is another story. Shop floor workers are among the lowest paid, even here, in London’s glittering Oxford Street.
“I earn £6.15 an hour. I have to live with my uncles, and £600 doesn’t go that far at all for 4 weeks” says a young Australian woman..
“This job isn’t enough. I am looking for a second job now…I will sleep about 2 hours a day but you know, you do what you have to do,” says a South African man.
“You have to be really careful not to spend too much cause you have to budget everything, like can I go out tonight, or not go out with my friends? You have to be really careful with the money, so that you got enough to travel, enough for lunch, enough even to get into work; it’s crazy. It would help if you could have a little more money,” says a Londoner.
In the UK, workers cannot be paid less than £6.08. This is the national minimum wage. But this figure is not always respected.
The minimum wage was first introduced as a way to control the proliferation of sweatshops in the manufacturing industry, first in New Zealand and Australia, then adopted in London but only for certain sectors. During the Great depression, Roosevelt’s America followed suit.
Most countries today have some sort of minimum wage. The value of it varies greatly, with a big gap between developed and developing countries where the abundance of unskilled workers pushes the level down.
A country with no lack of cheap labour is South Africa. To protect the most vulnerable workers, the state sets the minimum standard of pay, for instance for farm workers. Although it varies according to different areas and farm sizes, it is something around 70 eurocents per hour.
“The money is not very much and we are not so well-educated so this is the only job we can do, so we try to divide this money for our needs so we can survive,” says one man.
“It is important to have a minimum wage because the government will perhaps know what it costs to live. We would like to earn more than what we earn now, but we are afraid that if we ask for more they will just push us aside, and get some other people in our place,” says a woman.
“The benefit for us as growers is that we need them here every day at a crucial time during harvest so we pay more and we pay bonuses and that means our workforce is committed to getting the crop out,” says farmer Desmond Mudge.
There is no one-size-fits-all in South Africa: there are as many as 43 minimum wages depending on the job sector and geographical area. How has this safety net performed in the post-apartheid years, in a country with perhaps the highest unemployment in the world?
“In most cases what minimum wages have done for most of the affected workers has been understandably to increase wages, so we have seen an average increase in levels for domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers and so on. At the same time however there is evidence in some sectors particularly in agriculture that the minimum wage has seen a reduction in employment. So I think there is a variety of shifts but generally you would be hard-pressed to argue that a minimum wage would not reduce employment. The challenge I think though for policy makers is to think about the trade offs, that minimum wages on one hand do protect the poor, they have been shown almost without exception to reduce household poverty levels,” says economist Haaron Bhorat.
Apartheid might be a thing of the past but some posh Cape Town suburbs are predominantly white, and each pretty house has at least one domestic worker, almost always black. How to make sure this is a job and not a form of slavery? The law steps in to draw the line, starting from establishing decent pay.
Mina is one of the lucky ones, who is paid more than the minimum wage.
“The law is there but the law is not implemented. Because people they see it in the newspaper you must give your worker this and that but they don’t care about the workers, they don’t worry. It is just like “you must take what I give you”. And the other thing is some of the workers are very weak, they are scared, maybe I will lose my room where I am staying and then I will end up on the streets,” she says.
Mina’s employer recognises she is an exception:
“Everyone I know is in the same financial category as I am, living in Constancia which is an upmarket area, and not one of their domestics are in Mina’s position, none of them earn what Mina does, none of them gets the extras that Mina does. Mina is allowed so many leniences, constantly. The minimum wage? Most people don’t take any notice of it but they keep as close as they can to pay as little as they can,” says Denise Frank.
Mina’s school age children have to live in this shanty town, on their own. It is not just about the pay. It is about recognition, it’s about human rights.
“Apartheid was in a way the best thing, the best pressure we can get as domestic workers. In the apartheid years when I grew up there was never a space for domestic workers in this country, we were also labelled, we were given names, and when it comes to wages, even the previous government was saying that domestic workers don’t need a wage, they can go for training to cook better, and we feel that that is a discrimination against us. We are part of this country and also contribute to the economy of this country,” says the leader of the Domestic Workers Union Hester Stevens.
In times of crisis, many countries are revamping their lowest wage floor to protect the poor. Back in the UK, where the national minimum wage has been in place for 11 years, the results are positive.
“Certainly it has helped to reduce inequalities. I think inequality has been rising but it would have risen even more without the minimum wage. The minimum wage can’t solve the ills of the world. What it can do is to set a floor and aim to stop exploitation of people. But it can’t solve the issues of the whole employment structure of the economy. That’s not something you could ask it to do and if you asked it to do that it would fall over,” says the head of the Low Pay Commission David Norgrove.
The man behind the adoption of this policy is the Labour party’s Sir Ian Mc Cartney. The former member of parliament says this was the best achievement of his career. We met him in Wigan, the town in north-west England made famous by George Orwell, where he lives.
“We had the longest sitting in parliamentary history. I never left the chamber. I had a beard growing, my armpits were rotten but I was determined that that bill was going to go through. I had enough of the Conservatives; it was a hundred years of holding it up and they were not going to hold it up another hundred days. When we finally got the bill through, it was total elation, the atmosphere was like a football match when they win the world cup, it was just tremendous. People were saying that’s why we got into politics, that is why we wanted to change the world, we’re changing things.
And whether you are in a recession or in good times, no worker should be ever exploited for their labour!”