Tue, 04 Aug 2020

Earlier this week, on my way to an appointment, I saw a group of workers unblocking storm water drains in my area. I was really moved (and thankful) that they were doing this job in the cold and pouring rain of the latest winter storm in Cape Town.

As I drove past them, I could not help wondering how much they get paid to do this very miserable job - undoubtedly not very much!

That night I came across a news report about a businessman from Johannesburg who had bought a Lamborghini, a Jeep and three Porsches on the same day - and no, they weren't second-hand.

My intention is not to shame this businessman, but it did make me think about what and whom we value as a society.

During this Covid-19 pandemic, and especially through the initial stages of lockdown, we were told that only essential services were allowed to continue. So we found out what and whom we absolutely needed as a society to function and to survive.

Nurses, doctors, police officers, refuse removers, paramedics, firefighters, farmers and farm workers, pharmacists, truck drivers, cashiers and grocery store workers. IT, water and electricity workers were also among those that we could not do without.

Logic would dictate that, in a fair and ethical society, we would value those without whom we can truly not function. This does not only mean that we clap hands and make a noise for them during a crisis, but also that we express our societal appreciation in a monetary way - given that this is how value is reflected in a capitalist society.

Yet, strangely enough, it is exactly these essential services that are often the worst paid in our society.

A quick internet search on average (I'm aware that this can differ vastly) annual pay reveals this stark reality. For example: A nurse on average earns R230 000 p/a. A paramedic R186 000, a firefighter R97 000, a police officer R142 000, a pharmacist R460 000, a farm worker R60 000 and a teacher somewhere between R80 000 and R300 000.

Compare this with the R1 million of a politician - kickbacks and corruption excluded. (Look, I know we need them - not least of all because it gives political analysts work - but do we really need so many of them?)

However, it is when you look at the annual reward of CEOs of listed companies that you really enter the Maserati and Porsche world, so to speak.

Most of the CEOs of the top 40 companies on the JSE earn in excess of R20 million per annum. Some earn more than R40 million per annum. CEOs of smaller companies, such as the one of our Porsche and Maserati buyer, often also earn mega-millions every year.

It is, of course, true that we need companies and we need CEOs to run them effectively. I'm just not sure whether these CEOs are 80 times more valuable than a nurse, or 200 times more than a firefighter, or 140 times more than a police officer?

What is striking to me, is that almost all of these CEOs have been (and remain) extremely vocal about the need for the government to resist any increases in the public sector wage negotiations.

I'm fully aware of the drain that the public sector wage bill is putting on the fiscus. I'm also aware that these workers have been getting increases above inflation over the last few years. I'm also conscious that we have an inflated bureaucracy and many inefficient civil servants.

But: These salary negotiations also affect the nurses, police officers, teachers and municipal workers - those who we really can't do without and whom we have had to call on heavily during this Covid-19 crisis.

We need CEOs and we need essential workers. Yet, over the last century or so, we have gradually degraded the position of essential workers, while we have greatly elevated the positions of business people (and politicians).

As we are trying to reimagine a post Covid-19 world, it seems to me that one of the many questions we need to ask is how we bring better balance to this equation again - and, in particular, how we value those who are truly essential for our society to function.

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