Several thousand South African union members marched in Johannesburg and other cities to protest a proposed national minimum wage they called inadequate, presenting a test for President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa sees the minimum wage as an important step to tackle labour instability and wage inequality. He stakes his reputation on revamping a stuttering economy and rooting out corruption associated with Jacob Zuma, who he replaced as president in February.
The 20-rand ($1.60) an hour minimum wage was approved by Cabinet in November and meant to be introduced on May 1. But a parliamentary committee sent the wage bill back to the labour ministry for redrafting amid disagreements contents.
In Johannesburg on Wednesday protesting workers marched to the labour ministry holding placards. One read: “To hell with 20 Rand per hour”.
“A minimum wage of 20 Rand an hour is a spit in the face of the working class. Ramaphosa has sold out workers,” said Moses Modisane, a shop steward for NUMSA who works at an Anglo American mine.
“This is the only way to make our voice heard. We want a decent living wage,” said Theodor Njilo, a caterer earning less than R6,000 ($480) a month.
Supporters of the minimum wage say it will reduce inequality and stimulate economic growth as workers spend more. Critics say it could lead to increased unemployment, already at record highs, because some employers cannot afford higher wage bills.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which represents 30 unions with around 800,000 members, organised six marches countrywide to call government to radically alter wage legislation.
“We want to send the strongest message to those selling us out,” SAFTU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said.
“We did not suffer under apartheid for 20 Rand an hour,” Vavi told a crowd outside the headquarters of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).
SAFTU, founded last year, says it was excluded from minimum wage talks.
It is also angry over proposed amendments to South African labour law that would require unions to undertake an extended conciliation process and organise a secret ballot before workers strike.
Government says it held months of negotiations with unions and employers before the minimum wage was introduced.
COSATU, the country’s biggest trade union federation, which supported Ramaphosa’s bid for the leadership of the ANC, distanced itself from the protest and supported the minimum wage.