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. 

2 thoughts on “The Living Wage Project. #1. What?

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