What you need to earn to live a ‘decent’ life in South Africa

 ·20 Jun 2024

New data from the Living Wage South Africa Network noted that the average South African should earn at least R15,000 per month if they are to live a “decent” life.

According to Ines Meyer, the Network’s spokesperson, this amount is what the group considers a “living wage”, which is sufficient for a worker to provide themselves and their family with the basic necessities of life and save something for the future or to cover unforeseen emergency expenses.

Meyer noted that the research behind the amount is not based on typical methodologies for determining wages, which involve worker output, performance, or labour costs.

Rather, it takes as its basis that each employee is a human being with fundamental basic needs.

Its approach does not focus on external factors like inflation, housing shortages, natural disasters, government programmes, or the CPI.

“Instead, we consider the subjective experience of individual workers. We ask individuals across South Africa to score their own ability to make choices in different areas of life which are important to them,” said Meyer.

Those areas include measures such as quality of housing, employment, healthcare, physical and psychological well-being, and more.

The data collected from working individuals across South Africa between November 2023 and January 2024 establishes that workers require at least R15,000.00 per month if they are to live a decent life.

Meyer also explained that this is different from the national minimum wage, which employers are legally compelled to pay their workers but rarely satisfies their fundamental needs.

By contrast, employers are encouraged to offer a living wage voluntarily.

“This is in keeping with The Constitution of South Africa, which affords its citizens the right to live with dignity,” she said.

The issue with the National Minimum Wage

The National Minimum Wage is R27.58 per hour, R220.64 for an 8-hour day, and R4,633.44 for an average 21-day working month.

According to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMBEJD), the maximum wage of R4,633.44 in May 2024 when disbursed in a family of four persons is R1,158.36.

At this level, the minimum food shortfall for a family is 45.4%. After securing transport and electricity, workers are left with R2,046.52.

If all of this money went to food, then for a family of four, it would provide R511.63 per person per month. The Food Poverty Line is R760.

Whether South Africa can afford a living wage

Meyer said many employers in South Africa see even the minimum wage as a financial burden, let alone the costlier living wage.

“They argue it makes an ample workforce too expensive, resulting in higher unemployment, but I disagree,” she said.

“International living wage research shows that workers who can cope financially are more motivated, more productive and less prone to absenteeism,” she added.

“This benefits their employers, who offset their costs through greater output to meet market demand. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that providing decent incomes increases unemployment.”

Despite Meyer’s conviction, some employment experts noted that there is no evidence to suggest that providing decent income increases unemployment, which is exactly the issue.

Development economist Dieter von Fintel from Stellenbosch University noted that research suggests that in many sectors, minimum wage increases, as implemented in South Africa, did not destroy employment but reduced work hours.

However, he further explained that minimum wage increases have not adversely affected employment in South Africa because the hikes have been small.

“It is not certain that the larger hikes needed to accommodate higher wages will have the same benign impact. Much more research is required,” he said.

Read: Alarm bells for two of South Africa’s biggest employers

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