“Much of the debate about the national minimum wage has been characterised by what can be called the ‘half a loaf is better than none’ – approach. It is seductive to think that perhaps it is better to have a bad paying job than no job at all. This view has been especially widespread in the corporate sector and amongst business leaders. It is a slippage that we all tempted to make, because we value work and the dignity that goes with it. Yet, if one earns less than R 20-00 an hour (or even at R 20-00 per hour) there is virtually no prospect of moving out of poverty in this generation, and in all likelihood the next generation will find themselves poor and continuing to live below the poverty line.

That is one of the reasons why a National Minimum Wage is such a critical piece of legislation, because it asks us to consider not just what we know, but also the nature of our reality. It asks us to consider what concessions workers need to make in order to set a basic floor for wages that can be extended to all workers. It asks us to confront, that as a society neither the market nor government provides anything resembling a ‘social compact’ for the millions of unemployed.

In confronting this reality, it appears that the challenge is quite large. One way to think about the issues that confront us is to distinguish between strategies of pre-distribution and redistribution.”

Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen is an independent public policy analyst. His recent work includes transversal analysis of government spending on small business and options for public service collective bargaining. He currently serves on the board of the South African Labour Bulletin. He previously worked at the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI) leading the People’s Budget Campaign and the public sector transformation project. His online experiments include an online marketplace for knowledge workers, a blog on inequality and using website to advocate for small business and a little app to help him to write more quickly, which is called Write Invisible.

South Africa’s National Minimum Wage: A Total Sell Out? Or Bright Light in a Dark Tunnel?
by Salma Abdool & Ebrahim Fakir


This paper takes a balaced approach, navigating the middle ground between either a solely moral argument, or purely economic one.

We ask, what does the national minimum wage really offer? Is it a total sell out, or does it provide some light at the end of the tunnel? Negotiated at NEDLAC to be set at R20 per hour, or R3500 in monthly terms, the proposed national minimum wage does not meet either the living wage level, or the decent wage threshold.

This leaves many, particularly family members who are dependent on one workers wage, living below the working poor line (estimated to be R4317 as of February 2016).

While South African families often depend on one wage earner per family in which the R3500 per month would be insufficient, there are some benefits to be derived from setting a baseline for the distribution of wages.

While a wage level of R3500 is not “Just”, it does have positive spin-offs. Two of the employment sectors in which a Minimum Wage of R3500 will be have an immediate positive impact on, is agricultural and domestic workers – whom to date earn significantly below the working-poor line.

When the National Minimum Wage comes into effect, approximately 4.3 million low wage workers will immediately have their wages raised. This paper agrees that the National Minimum Wage policy be reviewed annually for assessment and adjustment in order to meet the needs of workers, and further agrees that the current negotiated level is a good baseline from which to advance workers interests.

Key words: National Minimum Wage, Working Poor Line, Poverty Line

Ebrahim Fakir

Awarded the Ruth First Fellowship for 2014 at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg – Ebrahim Fakir until recently headed the Political Parties and Parliamentary Programme at EISA [2010-2016].

He was formerly Senior Researcher and Analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg (2003-2009), he worked at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) [1998-2003] at both IDASA’s Pretoria and Cape Town offices and he also worked at the first democratic Parliament of the Republic of South Africa (1996-1998) in the Legilsation amd Oversight Division.

Before that, he was junior lecturer in English Literature at the then University of Durban-Westville (1994-1996) and continues to teach as a sessional lecturer in contemporary political economy at the Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University. He writes in the popular press as well as academic and policy journals on politics, development, and the state.

He is used as a commentator and facilitator by the domestic and international media, business and other organisations. He read for a degree in English Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand; Johannesburg where he was elected on to the Students Representative Council. He was visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex (2005/2006) and was a Draper Hills Summer Fellow at the Centre for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, for 2011.

Salma Abdool

Salma is the former Coordinator of the ASRI Programme in Public Policy Research. Prior to joining ASRI, she worked as a research assistant and peer tutor in the Department of International Relations and Anthropology, at the University of the Witwatersrand. She completed her Masters Degree as an NRF (National Research Foundation) and SARChi and (South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning) fellow, at the African Centre for Migration and Society, at the University of the Witwatersrand. She also holds a BA Honours Degree in International Relations and a BA Degree in International Relations and Anthropology both from the University of the Witwatersrand. Salma’s research interests include state, security and governance in Africa and the Middle East; post conflict rebuilding and natural resources in Africa; conflict prevention; and humanitarian, migration and urban policy issues.