South Africa - An Overview of Women's Work, Minimum Wages and Employment

An Overview of Women’s Work and Employment in South Africa. Minimum wage, wages, labour employment, unemployment, women employment, working conditions, Labour market structure, Legislation, Labour relations, Literacy, Literacy and skill levels of female labour, etc...

Decisions for Life MDG3 Project Country Report No. 3

University of Amsterdam /Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS)
Maarten van Klaveren, Kea Tijdens, Melanie Hughie-Williams, Nuria Ramos Martin
Amsterdam, Netherlands, December 2009


This report provides information on South Africa on behalf of the implementation of the DECISIONS FOR LIFE project in that country. The DECISIONS FOR LIFE project aims to raise awareness amongst young female workers about their employment opportunities and career possibilities, family building and the work-family balance. This report is part of the Inventories, to be made by the University of Amsterdam, for all 14 countries involved. It focuses on a gender analysis of work and employment.

History (2.1.1). After 1948, the authoritarian system of racial segregation under white minority dominance was formalised and intensified into “grand apartheid”.  Skilled jobs were reserved for whites. Forced by the liberalisation struggle led by the ANC and under growing international pressure, in 1989 the apartheid regime pronounced its own death sentence. Since 1994, subsequent ANC administrations govern, first with a free-market economic strategy (GEAR), later with a stronger public sector orientation. From 2004 on, the GDP-per-person-employed growth pattern has been volatile.

Governance (2.1.2). After 1994, new social movements emerged, often adressing governmental failures. These movements, notably the women’s movement, maintain a complex relationship with the mainstream of the nationalist movement based on the anti-apartheid struggle. With the 2009 elections, women representation in parliament increased to 43%.

Prospects (2.1.3). The global economic and financial crisis has seriously hit the South African economy, with in the first half year of 2009 a fall in employment of 360,000 compared to a year earlier. The economy remains vulnerable, especially for falling global commodities demand.

Communication (2.2). In 2007, 42.3 million cell phones were in use, nine on each ten South Africans. In 2008 nearly 10% of the population used the Internet. Freedom of press is rather well-guaranteed. Female sources are rarely used for news broadcasting.

The sectoral labour market structure – The long-term development (2.3.1). After rapid growth in female employment from 1970 on, in 1995-2000 growth in the formal sector slowed down. Afterwards, it remained limited to commerce, finance and community and related services.

The sectoral labour market structure – Formal and informal employment (2.3.2). After growing quickly between 1995 and 2003, informal employment stabilized. In 2007, 27% of the total workforce, 38% of the African workforce and 34% of all employed women worked in the informal sector. Facing that about 30% of all formal sector workers do not have a written contract, and with many in temporary or casual labour, we estimate for 2007 the share of core workers at 5.2 million, 38% of the labour force at large.

The sectoral labour market structure – Unemployment (2.3.3). Unemployment is especially high among African women and youngsters. Recently unemployment of African women (according to the official narrow definition) stood at 31%, and unemployment of young women at 52%. Nearly half of all unemployed women were new entrants to the labour market.

Legislation (2.4.1). South Africa has ratified the core ILO Labour Conventions, and its laws are nondiscriminatory. Its labour legislation is highly codified and complicated.

Labour relations (2.4.2). 2008 estimates point at union densities of 24% over all employed, with 20% female density, or 31% in the formal sector against 3% in the informal sector. After a series of mergers, three union confederations are in place, COSATU, SACOTU and CONSAWU, all ITUC affiliates.

The statutory minimum wage (2.5.1). For nine vulnerable sectors, the Minister of Labour issues minimum wage determinations, with levels between 19 to 72% of average monthly wages in the respective sectors. The lowest minimum wages are set at 125% of the upper poverty line. Jointly with the minimum wage floors in collective agreements at industry level, 85% of the female labour force is covered by regulations laying down minimum wages. Non-compliance with minimum wages is generally a large problem.

Poverty (2.5.2). For 2000-06, it has been estimated that 43% of the population lived under the poverty line of USD 2 a day. Between 1995-2000, poverty grew among the African population. From 2002 on, with the expansion of social grants payments, poverty decreased. Especially where access to basic services is still limited, the burden of poverty falls heavily on women and girls. In 2006, South Africa ranked 125th on the human development index (HDI), 49 places below its GDP per capita rank.

Population and fertility (2.6.1). Due to the HIV/AIDS prevalence and to emigration, population growth rate is falling and, with 0.3% in 2008, quite low. The total fertility rate (2.4 children per woman) and the adolescent fertility rate (54 per 1,000) are also comparatively low.

HIV/AIDS (2.6.2). In 2007, about 5.7 million South African people lived with HIV, and the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate for those aged 15-49 was estimated at 18%. New HIV infections disproportionately affect young poor females, mostly African. Yet, progress is going on in the struggle against the pandemic; recently a decrease of HIV prevalence among the 15-24 of age has been found.

Women’s labour market share (2.6.3). The overall labour partication rate of the 15-64 of age is only 57%, and for women 50%. The female share in the formal sector was in 2007 40%, and in the informal sector 55%. We estimate the current size of the target group of DECISIONS FOR LIFE for South Africa at about 1.4 million girls and young women 15-29 of age working in urban areas in commercial services.

Agriculture (2.6.4). Large commercial enterprises dominate agriculture, and the employment share of agriculture is only about 8%. Thus, young women living in cities and trying to make a career rarely can rely on a “fall-back scenario” in which they can go back to their families living from agriculture.

Mining and manufacturing (2.6.5). Since the late 1990s, much manufacturing work have been outsourced and casualised, and manufacturing has become a less promising source of employment for women. The official figures indicate that still one-third of manfacturing employment is female.

Commerce (2.6.6). Though 1970-2007 wholesale and retail trade was the largest grower, 2007-’09 witnessed a serious fall in employment, especially hitting African women and men. In the 1990s practices of casualisation and externationalisation of labour accelerated in the retail sector.

Services (2.6.7). Already since 1970, finance, insurance and other business services was the fastest growing industry. Between 2007 and April – June 2009, employment growth continued, and even speeded up for women. The government has labeled call centres and tourism especially promising sectors, and they seem to realise their potential.

Government (2.6.8). In the course of the 2000s budgetary constraints lowered employment prospects in the public sector. Analyses show monthly wages of public sector workers being higher than comparable wages in the private sector at large. They also learn that the public sector has moved faster to ensure wage equity in terms of gender and population group than the private sector.

Literacy (2.7.1). The adult literacy rate –those age 15 and over that can read and write—was in 1999-2006 88%. A gender gap is small or non-existent in literacy. In 2007, the literacy rate for 15-24 year-olds was set at 95%.

Education of girls and young women (2.7.2). Enrollment rates in all educational types are highest for girls. For 2007, net enrollment in primary education was 91%, with 92% for girls, though in 2000 both figures were 5%points higher. Also for 2007, gross enrollment in secondary education was 87%, with 89% for girls. For 2005, the enrollment rate for tertiary education was 15.5%, and 17% for young women.

Female skill levels (2.7.3). Whereas in 2009 50% of the female employed had completed secondary or tertiary education, the equivalent male share got stuck at 45.5%. Nearly 21% of employed women had completed their tertiairy education, 4%points more than men. African women have on average also attained a higher educational level than African men, both among employed and unemployed.

Wages (2.8.1). Overall wage inequality grew between 1995 and 1998/2000, but reversed afterwards, though the earnings differences between population groups still grew. Since 2000, the gender pay gap has narrowed, but it is with 25-35% still wide. Higher education is very important in determining wages, with a vocational education, a degree and a postgraduate degree being most important. A vocational qualification was found to be more important for higher wages for females than for males.
Average earnings in the formal sector are highest in utilities and transport etc., and lowest in wholesale and retail, and construction.

Working conditions (2.8.2). A number of occupational health and safety problems persist, like resistant tuberculosis among mine and health care workers. Working hours are quite long, with in 2009 25% of women and 35% of men working more than 45 hours per week.

Indications of employers’ HR practices (2.8.3). The major challenge in HR policies is the need to move to employment equity, fair pay and skills development. Early accounts did not find much progress in this field. The adoption of new HR practices in large companies can combine with a strong union presence.


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