PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa has used his May Day Celebration speech to defend the government’s R20 an hour minimum wage decision, saying the country had to strike a delicate balance between establishing a “firm” foundation for a living wage and causing a job bloodbath.
Calling for a dignified way of striking, Ramaphosa urged workers to exercise their right to protest while at the same time respecting public property and the rights of vulnerable members of society who rely on essential services.
Speaking at Cosatu’s main rally in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape on Tuesday, the president also reiterated calls for unity amongst the workers. This comes in the wake of a bitter rivalry between Cosatu and its breakaway federation, the South African Federation Trade Unions (SAFTU) led by former Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande, who also graced the occasion at the Isaac Wolfson Stadium in Kwanobuhle, spoke against those who are allegedly plotting against the new ANC leadership. Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini used the occasion to slam those who claim his federation has died.
Ramaphosa said a lot of workers would lose their jobs and many companies would have to close down if the government were to impose a R15 000 minimum wage.
As a result, his government and labour federations Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu agreed on a R20 an hour minimum wage as a starting point, he said.
Ramaphosa said the minimum wage was designed to “lift” 6.5 million workers as part of the march towards a living wage.
“So, comrades we must never be shy of incremental victories. There are those who are saying the minimum wage should have been R15 000 or R12 000. Yes, we want workers to get that type of wage. But at the same time, many workers in our country would have lost their jobs. Many factories would have closed. Many people would have lost their jobs because even those with domestic workers would have said, ‘we can’t afford this’,” Ramaphosa said.
“We had to balance between losing millions of jobs and establishing a firm base and a foundation for us to continue waging the struggle for a living wage. That is what we chose. Others would have preferred to say, yes, have a national minimum wage of R12 000 or R15 000 but then I can promise you half the people in SA would have lost their jobs. Eight million people would have been out of work.”
He added that his government wanted to attract investors in order to create new jobs. However, Ramaphosa also slammed employers who ill-treated and paid their workers slave wages especially some farmers.
The president called on workers to respect public property while exercising their legitimate right to protest. “We must look carefully of how as working people we are able to look after the vulnerable people in our society. Recently, where there has been strike and protest we have found that some of the workers have actually been preventing other workers from doing very important work such as helping women to give birth, such as looking after very newly born children or babies,” he added.
Protesters in North West recently burned public property, looted shops and blocked health employees from rendering services in some hospitals in the province.
Demanding the removal of Premier Supra Mahumapelo, they fought running battles with the police for days in the provincial capital Mahikeng and other parts of the province.
This week, other “service delivery protesters” burned 24 trucks at the Mooi River Toll Plaza in KwaZulu-Natal over the employment of foreign drivers, causing more than R240 million worth of damage.
Ramaphosa said he longed for the day when workers would be united under one federation. Nzimande defended Ramaphosa’s “New Deal” concept and criticised those who denounced it as a non- ANC policy. He said the concept gave ANC policies a strategic direction.
“As the SACP, we also want to express some concern that it seems there is some fight back. Unfortunately, part of the KZN province is positioning itself to fight back the things that need to be done. We want to say to abasebenzi ba se KZN [KZN workers], don’t allow that province to be a basis of regression,” Nzimande said.
For his part, Dlamini denied claims by Vavi that Cosatu was a dead federation.
“Cosatu remains a formidable force representing the voiceless workers and the poor in the country, and no one will take that thing away. So, I don’t mind about liars. I am not going to spend my breath trying to correct liars,” Dlamini said.
“All I can say is, let us stay focused. Let us not be distracted by those who wish they were born yesterday when they were born just now. Walk tall Eastern Cape and say, no one is going to distort history and say, Cosatu is dying. It’s not.”