Eric Bloch Column

Catastrophic hike in domestic wages

By Eric Bloch

THE New Testament states: “For the labourer is worthy of his hire,” clearly contending that any labourer is entitled to a fair wage, commensurate with the nature and extent of the labour he

undertakes. Only those very few who still avow slavery, and those endowed with the evil trait of exploitation would disagree.

In view thereof, the recently prevailing minimum wage for domestic workers of $90 000 per month (albeit in addition to serviced accommodation and specified supplies or, in the alternative, compensatory allowances) was inhumane in the extreme, and required substantive adjustment.

However, the government went completely overboard when on March 24 it gazetted new minimum wages. In Statutory Instrument 42 of 2005 it prescribed a minimum wage for workers residing at the employer’s premises of $850 000 per month for gardeners and like workers, $900 000 per month for cooks and housekeepers and $950 000 per month for child, disabled and aged minders.

For workers not provided accommodation at their place of employment, the minimum wage must be enhanced by allowances totalling $356 000, bringing the aggregate minimum remuneration to $1 256 000.

Proponents for such minimum wages argue that they are more than justified in the light of the poverty datum line (PDL) for a family of five approximating $2 million but, in so doing, they disregard that in instances where the employment is substantially on an “all found” basis, which includes accommodation, electricity, water, refuse removal, sewage services and provision of food, the bulk of the components of the PDL have been addressed before bringing the cash wages to account. They also disregard that the average family unit comprises at least two income earners and, therefore, it is not incumbent upon one to earn equal to or above the PDL.

However, of even greater importance is that those proponents in general, and the government in particular, fail to recognise that an inadequate remuneration is better than none at all. The hard fact is that a very great number of the employers of domestic workers cannot afford to pay the newly gazetted wages, and therefore have little choice but to discontinue employment, howsoever reluctant that they may be to do so.

When the combined income of a husband and wife is less than $3 million per month, and over and above their basic living costs they have to fund education for up to three children, they simply cannot afford to employ a domestic worker at a cost of $1 256 000 per month, or more. So they have to manage without.

But the discharged domestic worker has very little prospect, within the prevailing Zimbabwean economy, of obtaining alternative employment, and is therefore condemned to even greater poverty than would have been had employment continued, although at a lesser wage level than now prescribed.

Although no reliable data is available, authoritative estimates foreshadow that the consequence of the government’s ill-considered action is that up to half of the total number of domestic workers in Zimbabwe now face a very real prospect of joining the ranks of the already more than three million unemployed Zimbabweans.

With such a consequence, one must ponder why the government would have taken such a catastrophic action as the gazetting of the new levels of domestic worker wages. The charitable will suggest that the government did so solely out of concern for the distressed circumstances of the domestic workers, oblivious to the negative consequences.

However, many suspect that there were other motives. They query whether it was wholly coincidental that the wage increases were gazetted exactly one week before the parliamentary elections. After all, most domestic workers reside in urban areas, and it was well-known that the greatest electoral support for the opposition was located in those areas.

It could very well, therefore, have been in the government’s interests to try to motivate a major part of the domestic worker populace to vote for its candidates, instead of the opposition candidates. The government could, therefore, very well have dismissed cavalierly the adverse repercussions of the wage increases, for these repercussions could only be experienced after the elections.

In the alternative, the government may have been so tantalised by attaining increased voter support that it did not even bother to consider whether there could, or would, be any negative repercussions.

Whatsoever may have been the motives for promulgating the new wage levels, the consequences are very far-reaching, and can potentially be yet another nail in the coffin of a very ailing economy. Almost immediately after the wage awards became known, there was a sharp reaction from unions representing agricultural workers.

Understandably, they adopted a militant and demanding stance that as those workers were engaged in the productive sector, as distinct from the domestic workers in the consumptive sector, and as the minimum wage for agricultural workers was, in some instances, as low as $90 000 per month, that minimum wage should immediately rise to at least $1 million per month.

Prima facie, the demand is justified and not at all unreasonable. Unfortunately, however, the reality is that there are very few, if any, sectors of agriculture that can pay such wages and be viable.

Agriculture is already very severely decimated by the barrage of destructive actions the government has directed against it over the last four to six years. Although varying in extent between the tobacco, cotton, maize and other grains, citrus, sugar, coffee and tea, livestock and other sectors of agriculture, overall production has fallen by more than 60%.

Almost all that are still engaged in agriculture are struggling to break even, let alone eke out a living. With a prospect that agricultural wages will increase up to tenfold, most farmers now fear that insolvency is looming ahead. And if the volume of agricultural production falls yet further, the entire economy will suffer yet further, for agriculture has always been the foundation and mainstay of Zimbabwe’s economy.