The Living Wage Project #2. Why?

Remember those happy world cup feelings? Don't we want those feelings to last? Living wage, people.

Remember those happy world cup feelings? Don’t we want those feelings to last? Living wage, people.

So I kind of gave myself away in the previous post with some of the reasons why as employers we should pay a living wage. But here they are:

1. It lowers the crime rate. Forget all the “be a nice person” reasons. South Africa has one of the highest inequality ratios between the rich and the poor. And research has shown that the higher the inequality in a country, the higher the violent crime, and the worse off the entire country. And it’s not always that poor people are murdering rich people– rather, the inequality creates a system of frustration– people see the extreme wealth of others, and see there is no way for them to break out of their extreme poverty, and this leads to feelings of futility (why should I even work? There’s no way I’ll ever break out of this!) frustration, anger, and jealousy, and this can lead to a higher level of spousal abuse, violence, aggression and crime. So if you want to see crime go down– pay people a living wage.

2. It helps people break out of poverty, which helps the whole economy. We don’t want to be a country of street sweepers and gardeners (not that there is anything wrong with people who do that work– it’s valuable and needed!) But if we want to be a country that leads the way in terms of technology, science, the arts, we need people who are educated–which is one reason why you should pay someone a living wage and not just minimum wage. Further, there’s this basic economic principle that when people have money, they buy more stuff. When people can buy more stuff, more stuff can be produced (creating more jobs).

3. It’s right. Guys, we want to be able to go to bed at night and know that we are not exploiting our workers. Imagine when someone asks you what you pay your domestic worker that you don’t have to drown that shameful feeling by creating a long list of justifications, “I pay them x amount, but we also pay for one of the granddaughter’s school fees”. You can happily share what you pay, with the confidence that it is based on solid research, and your domestic worker is not being exploited.

4. God wants us to pay people justly. Our small group at church read “Generous Justice” by Tim Keller. One of the things this book showed is that all throughout scripture, God commands not only charity, but just wages, and empowerment for the poor as well. So the biblical commands in the Old Testament were not just to give money to the temple for the poor (which is a command, by the way) but also to pay your workers justly, and make sure there was provision for the poor to help themselves. As a concrete example, God told farmers not to harvest to the edges of their fields, but to leave the corners unharvested, so the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and those who had no means of income could come and harvest the extra for themselves. That meant that the farmer could not squeeze maximum profit from his field, and then give some of his income to charity and call it good. It meant that there was a provision for the poor that wasn’t demeaning, or creating dependency (the poor had to actually harvest it!) In today’s society, not many of us are farmers. So what does it look like to put this principle into practice? One way is paying your domestic worker a living wage– even if legally you have a “right” to pay them less, by paying them a living wage, you are giving them the opportunity to provide for themselves and their family and hopefully have a chance at breaking out of poverty. (Jesus and Paul talk about these ideas as well, but this is just one concrete example).

5. Here’s how a South African Christian in Joburg who is now paying a living wage put 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: 1) Food (“feed the hungry”); 2) Shelter (“provide the poor wanderer with shelter”); 3) Clothing (“clothe the naked”); 4) Basic needs (“satisfy the needs of the oppressed”); and 5) Things that will break the cycle of poverty (“untie the cords of the yoke”). As I looked at these five areas, I realised that unless the wages that I paid were providing for all five of these areas, I was exploiting my worker. I realised that I had been setting wages based on norms of what others paid and not on what was right.”

And now… given all of that– what IS a living wage for someone in Sweetwaters? Check out part three.

For part one “What is a living wage?” check out my previous post.

The Living Wage Project. #1. What?

Come on, South Africa! Let's start paying a living wage. :)

Come on, South Africa! Let’s start paying a living wage. 🙂

When my sister-in-law came out here for three months she set herself the personal project of researching what a living wage for a person in Sweetwaters would be. (She’s an awesome researcher. You know, because she doesn’t have enough to do working on her PhD, she just sets herself personal research projects like this. Impressive). And yes, we found the magic number. So I’m going to be sharing her findings on my blog– but first, I’d like to take a few posts to explain what a living wage is, and why it’s even important as employers to pay people a living wage.


A living wage is one that meets a family’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, transportation) but also includes some income to build wealth, perhaps an opportunity to slowly build cash savings for a house, or an education to upskill themselves or someone in their family.

This is different from minimum wage. Minimum wage is the legal amount set by the government that you have to pay someone or you are breaking the law. Notice that it’s the minimum. In other words, you are a criminal if you’re paying someone less. The minimum wage set by law for domestic workers is about R65 per day ($6.50, for my American friends).

Now, thankfully, most employers in Hilton pay their domestic workers (and gardeners, and nannies) more than minimum wage. So Hiltonians, we can breathe a sigh of relief because we’re not doing anything illegal. In fact, I think most of us like to pat ourselves on the back because we’re going “above and beyond” the minimum wage and paying… well, at least as much as what our friends pay. And sometimes more, to make ourselves feel better. But we always have this guilty feeling like, “Am I paying enough?” because– let’s face it, we have no clue what it costs to live in Sweetwaters, but we assume it must be a lot less than what it costs to live in Hilton.

A survival wage is a wage that is enough money to cover all the basic essentials that someone needs to survive. It means you’re paying someone enough to eat, have shelter, get where they need to go (for food, work and school), and educate their children. Paying minimum wage means you can’t be taken to court in South Africa for breaking the law, but if you’re not paying someone enough to survive, than that’s still not okay (and as a sneak preview, R65/day is not really enough to cover the basic essentials of life in Sweetwaters).

A living wage is a slight step up from that. It’s something that allows a person to make choices. In other words, if literally every cent you earn is marked for food or school fees or taxi fare to get to work, you have no money on hand when there is an emergency, no money to save up, no money to help your kids get further (or better) education– in other words, there is no way you can break out of poverty.  I think we have this idea that if anyone works hard and saves up, they can become anything they want to be. Well. You can’t. Because what if you literally have no money to save up? What if you’re the brightest student in your high school, but there’s absolutely no money at home and so you can’t get a university degree? (Side note: Although unemployment rates in South Africa are extremely high (like, at least 25% with conservative estimates) the unemployment rate among those with university degrees is 1%. Getting a university degree is literally a guarantee that you’ll be employed). 

A living wage is empowering. So maybe you give your domestic worker extra clothes your kids don’t need, or pass on your old text books, or even pay school fees for her kids. That’s great! Don’t stop! But paying a living wage is something that can help to break the generational cycle of poverty in a non-paternalistic way (i.e., think handouts that can actually perpetuate poverty and dependency).

I mean, I don’t go to my boss and ask for his old clothes or take his unwanted appliances home. I don’t have to ask to borrow money from my boss in a crisis. My boss assumes that he’s giving me a salary and if I want something, I have the ability to save and manage my money. I have that freedom- which is dignifying and which honors my humanity. 

Check out part 2 to see why I think it’s important to pay a living wage.