How we came to pay a living wage

By Nigel Branken

About 3 years ago, our domestic worker came to us and asked for time off to take her child to the dentist. I decided to go with her to the visit. The child’s teeth were rotten and the dentist asked “Why is your child not brushing her teeth?”, To which our domestic worker devastatingly replied “I can’t afford a toothbrush!”. At the time, we were paying our domestic worker R3500 per month. We thought this was not only fair but actually a high wage as our friends and neighbours were paying on average R2000 per month. At the same time I had been working with a group of blind and disabled Zimbabwean illegal immigrants and refugees. A friend, who works in marketing, approached me and explained that a client of his required 10,000 scarves to be made for a marketing campaign. The client was prepared to pay R30 for the labour component of each scarf. He had worked out that to knit a single scarf would take approximately 4 hours. This meant that a person could knit two scarves in one day and be paid R60 for the day’s labour. This seemed very low. I said to my friend that I would go home and pray about it. I searched through the Scriptures, looking in the concordance for words like wage, labour, work, worker, employer and exploitation. What I discovered was eye opening and left me deeply convicted. Throughout Scripture, the onus for setting wages is the responsibility of the employer and Scripture repeatedly warns against those who exploit workers. One Scripture which stood out to me was Isaiah 58. The context for this text is set in verse 3, which says “you live with your pleasures while you exploit your workers”. The text then goes on to talk about five areas:

1) Food (“feed the hungry”);
2) Shelter (“provide the poor wanderer with shelter”);
3) Clothing (“clothe the naked”);
4) Basic needs (“satisfy the needs of the oppressed”); and
5) Things that will break the cycle of poverty (“untie the cords of the yoke”).

As I looked at these five areas, I realised that unless the wages that I paid were providing for all five of these areas, I was exploiting my worker. I realised that I had been setting wages based on norms of what others paid and not on what was right. I realised that the minimum wage to be paid should not be less than what is required to live. As I reflected on this, I recalled many times asking myself the question “How does she live on this?”, but never truly seeking an answer to that question. This led me to the damning conclusion that I had been exploiting my domestic worker. I decided to phone my marketing friend and tell him that I would not be involved in providing exploitative work and I resolved to immediately try to put this wage issue right with my domestic worker. To do this, I said to my domestic worker that I would cover all of her living expenses for the next three months. I also realised that this had to include her family. In her case she had a working husband and two children ages 6 and 14.  I sat with her and worked out how much she needed in each of these five areas:

1) Food (nutritious food) – as we sat and talked about her food requirements, I realised that this was an area in which her, and many poorer people I have subsequently come to know, significantly compromise in. In the inner-city of Johannesburg, the average working-class family of four, normally survives off about R500 to R1000 a month on food. The diet consists primarily of maize meal, with spinach or cooked vegetables, and the occasional treat of a little meat. Any dietician will tell you that eating in this way for a sustained period will result in a variety of health issues. In order to calculate a nutritious diet, I sat with a dietician and asked her advice on what should be purchased on a monthly basis and on a weekly basis. I then went shopping for the monthly shop with our domestic worker for the first three months. We shopped at Pick and Pay and bought in bulk where we could. I realised after this exercise that her family of four required approximately R2000 per month for a nutritious diet.

2) Shelter (dignified shelter) – we visited our domestic worker at home and found that she was staying in a 5 m x 4 m single room. Her husband and her shared a double bed in that room, while her 6-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son slept on the floor. There was a fridge in the one corner of the room and a small kitchen cupboard with a two plate stove on top of it which the family used to cook. The family shared ablution facilities with about 4 other families on the same floor. This was not the kind of shelter I would have imagined a family staying in where both the mother and father were employed. They paid R 1600 a month for this single room. As I investigated, I found the minimum rental cost of a two roomed apartment with its own ablutions was R2250 per month;

3) Clothing (adequate clothing) – Jesus said that if a man has two coats he should give one away and so the standard here for me was to make sure that everyone in the family had at least one set of adequate clothing for each of the various activities they participated in. We went shopping and ensured that the children had school uniforms, clothing for sports or other activities as was required by the school, that the children had clothes to play in and clothes to sleep in. We did the same for the adults;

4) Basic needs (all of her family’s basic needs) – items we included here were monthly costs for water and electricity, monthly transport costs, monthly cellphone needs,education of the children and groceries (including a toothbrush!). We did not include any costs for health care as we believed these could be obtained for free at the local clinic.

5) Things that will break the cycle of poverty (things like education and savings) – In Rerum Novarum, a papal decree issued by, Pope Leo XIII in 1891 which deals with the rights and duties of capital and labour, he states that if “a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him to comfortably support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income”. In other words, the wage should provide enough that if managed wisely, the worker will be able to save some money to break out of generational poverty.

Each month I reviewed what we spent in each of the 5 areas and at the end of the period, I had worked out that her family needed at least R9000 to R10,000 per month to live. As she was married and her husband was working, I decided to set her wage at R5000 per month (half of what was required). In order to meet the additional budget required, I looked at the first part of Isaiah 58:3 “you live with your pleasures”. Often we say we can’t afford to pay our workers more because we have extended our standard of living beyond what we need. As I looked at the “pleasures” in my budget that I could do away with in order to ensure that I could pay a living wage to my domestic worker, I quickly found a few areas where I could make a change. There were so many things in my life that I had prioritised over ensuring that she was paid a living wage. I found that by sacrificing a few non-essential items, I was able to pay her justly.

As part of this journey, I have begun to read quite extensively on this issue. I have learned that there is a huge difference between paying a minimum wage and paying a living wage. Minimum wage levels have never kept pace with increases in the cost of living. There are also many implications of us paying a wage which is below that which is required to live, including implications in health care, education, safety and security, and opportunities for breaking free from generational poverty. For me perhaps the most severe of these implications is shortened lifespans – in our HIV/AIDS ravaged nation, the life expectancy of the average South African is currently 52 years. For those who earn under R 5000 per month per family, this life expectancy is significantly reduced. In essence, this means when I pay a wage below a living wage, I am reducing the life expectancy of that person perhaps by as much as 20 years. In the back of my head is the question, “How is this different to murder?”

I have also realised that most of my wealth, privilege, and opportunities have been provided to me because of the structural inequalities which exist and have existed for a long time within society. The South African National Planning Commission list nine challenges facing South Africa as 1) Poor Educational Outcomes;

2) High Disease Burden;
3) Divided Communities;
4) Uneven Public Service;
5) Spatial Patterns which marginalise the poor;
6) Too few South Africans are Employed;
7) Corruption;
8) A Resource Intensive Economy and
9) Crumbling Infrastructure. Underpinning all of these, they argue, are the two root challenges of A) Poverty and B) Inequality. Regarding poverty in Sub Saharan Africa, this region is the only region in the world where the number of poor people (people living below the poverty line) is increasing. Regarding inequality: the levels of inequality in South Africa have rapidly increased since 1994. Economists now tell us that South Africa has the dubious distinction of being labelled as the most unequal society in the world. This means both the number of poor and the gap between rich and poor has been getting worse, not better in South Africa since 1994.

The issues we face as a nation are huge and are going to require considerable effort to overcome. Martin Luther once said:

“If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.”

In South Africa, it is clear that the biggest battle for justice that we face has to do with the double-sided pernicious enemies – poverty and inequality. This is where we need to engage the world the most if we want to create a society which is just.  I honestly believe, that paying a living wage to workers is not only just, but is probably the single most important thing we can do to address poverty and inequality in our country. Furthermore, as we pay a living wage, and workers are able to purchase nutritious food, live in decent shelter, buy adequate clothing, provide for all of their basic needs and have space in their budgets to save and invest so that future generations do not need to live in poverty, we will find not only is poverty and inequality being addressed, but we will also find a reduction in the other challenges facing South Africa. The time is now for us all to review whether we are paying a living wage

. – First published in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *