About 6 years ago (in 2010), 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:
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:
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.
Update: Subsequent to this article, we moved into Hillbrow, Johannesburg and part of this journey has led us to no longer employ a domestic worker. We helped arrange alternative work for her at a local coffee roastery, where she is still being paid a living wage.
I have in the past often used the expression "giving dignity". In reflecting on this I wonder whether this phrase is unhelpful. It seems to put power and control in the "giver". I wonder whether it is better to use phrasing like "recognize the dignity" or "acknowledge the dignity" or affirm the dignity".
Surely part of dignity is equality and affirming or recognizing that as we meet someone we are both of equal value. I remember a visit from an Australian friend of ours (Anji Barker) to a visually impaired friend of ours. One of the first things she did was to ask him to show her how to write her name in Braille. This simple, yet profound act was intentionally done to place her in a position of need and the man in a position as teacher. It was an act which recognized equality and thereby affirmed dignity.
In our work in Hillbrow we are learning that we are not here to help our community as much as we are here to stand in solidarity with our community and to journey alongside as friends and neighbours. We laugh together, cry together, learn from one another and work as coconspirators of a new world together. We are friends and neighbours.