Extraordinary wage inequality among those paid with public money

| Terry Bell
Terry Bell.

South Africa is desperately short of nurses and many highly skilled practitioners are now over the age of 50 and nearing retirement. Yet there are estimated to be more than 30,000 South African nurses working abroad, everywhere from Dubai to Dublin.

There is also a shortage of teachers and many who are highly qualified have left schools and colleges here to not only widen their experience, but to earn more money abroad in usually much better conditions. They form part of what is regularly referred to as a “bloated civil service”.

Some critics of those who have left to work abroad have also now dubbed these workers unpatriotic. They are not. They are part of the international army of migrant labour, often forced by economic circumstance to live apart from their families for years at a time.

Many — and this seems, in South Africa, to apply mainly to nurses — have families that rely on their remittances, often to provide children with a better future. This is is to the general benefit of society and the country.

In any event, since capital knows no boundaries — especially in this globalised world — nor should labour accept any. Any more than workers should become patriotic.

Patriotism, a term beloved of politicians, often of the extreme nationalist variety, implies unquestioning support for a government and the social and economic system it promotes. So every trade unionist — and every thinking person — should be proudly unpatriotic. Critical analysis is crucial.

Such analysis reveals that the pay structure in the civil service is skewed, and that the wage and welfare gap between the lowest and highest paid is growing, year by year. This I pointed out last week, comparing the pay of an auxiliary nurse with decades of experience to that of a departmental directors.

“But why didn’t you compare what we get with ministers and the others in government?” a paramedic asked, stating: “They are also civil servants.”

In one sense, he is right. Those in parliament and government are our elected representatives, even if nominated by political parties. And it is public’ money that covers their pay and perks.

Certainly, compared to even the most lowly backbench MP, who may say or do little in parliament, the difference is stark. Added to basic pay of R82,821 a month, there are a range of benefits that take the value of an MP’s package to well beyond R1 million a year.

Included are 86 free economy air fares, free, top-of-the-range communications equipment and an allocation of R4,900 a year to cover internet and data services and insurance. Travel perks also extend to some members of an MP’s family and there is subsidised housing along with free electricity, domestic and gardening services.

This is the minimum position for an MP. But once elevated to the post of one of the 35 ministerial or 37 deputy ministerial posts, the rewards are much greater. The wage and welfare gap between these high flyers and the civil service ranks is also growing, even with lesser percentage pay increases.

After a 5% increase of R8,777 a month, the basic pay monthly of a cabinet minister is R184,328. Together with President Jacob Zuma (R2.75 million a year) and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa (R2.6 million), the total annual salary bill for the cabinet alone comes to a little less than R145 million.

However, there are also the 37 deputy ministers, each paid R151,798 a month and adding R68.4 million to the annual salary bill. There are also commensurate perks at the ministerial level, including special flights, VIP protection and spousal support that one estimate maintain adds up to R720 million a year.

Little wonder then that public service workers are increasingly angry at their lot. But perhaps more thought should also be given to the majority of those in work who earn, on average, less than R4,000 a month.

So rather than making a minimum wage or higher pay rises the priority, perhaps unions should demand an adequate basic income grant for all, while taking steps to close the wage and welfare gaps in both the public and private sectors.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

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