Living wages a major demand in Africa

22.10.2014

Campaigns are being developed in several African countries to push for living wages.

Following IndustriALL Global Union's Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Conference, affiliates from Mauritius, Madagascar, Lesotho, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria met in Johannesburg on 17-18 October to discuss how to make progress on their living wage demands.

In each of the countries, the wage fixing mechanisms are different and affiliates recognized the need to understand them in order to make progress. Ethiopian affiliates are struggling to establish a minimum wage for the first time, while in many countries the minimum wage is far below the level of a living wage.

Participants recognized the drawbacks of relying solely on the minimum wage for increases when in some countries this is unilaterally declared by government with no consultation of the social partners. In other countries, consultation is cursory and ignored.

Unions from South Africa and Nigeria made compelling presentations of the strength of collective bargaining at industry level as the most effective means of delivering wage increases. For South African textile and clothing union SACTWU, the living wage campaign is at the core of its work and centralized bargaining is used to achieve the best outcome for workers.

The union works to bring employers into the national bargaining council, which covers over 100,000 workers, and the government can extend the agreements to other employers. Increases for 2014 were above the inflation rate at an average of 8 per cent.

Similarly in Nigeria, industry level collective bargaining is recognized by the National Union of Textile, Garment & Tailoring Workers (NUTGTW) as the most effective means of securing wage increases that benefit the largest number of workers.

The unions from Lesotho explained how they are working towards a merger to be finalized in February 2015 as a means of consolidating union strength. They are currently in joint negotiations with government and employers towards their own model of bargaining councils, based on the South Africa experience. The Lesotho unions’ living wage campaign is called 2020, referring to the target figure of M2,020.00 (US $184) per month.

In Mauritius, many workers in the garment sector are migrants, earning well below the poverty line of US $130 per month. The national minimum wage fixing mechanism does not function as increases are made at the discretion of the Minister and have not been updated for most industries for many years. Unions are campaigning for the minimum wage to be set at the level of a living wage.

In Ethiopia, massive growth is expected in the textile and garment sector where there is no minimum wage and wages are around US $35-50.

In Madagascar the minimum wage is US $53 whereas the living wage is estimated at US $400 and 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Unions face a massive challenge in negotiating to raise wages when they lack resources and capacity.

The meeting ended with each of the unions developing action plans targeting a living wage through organizing, union building and increasing unity towards the goal of industry-level collective bargaining.