THE FATAL MORAL ARGUMENT FOR A JCTR
BASIC NEEDS BASKET LIVING WAGE…
The JCTR says the current load shedding and economic trends leading to a kwacha depreciation have already triggered increases in some basic needs such as food, transport, energy, housing, and yes, we agree with them, even the cost of health care and education in as far as imported cost of medicines and education materials is concern.
And the JCTR are anticipating a higher than normal cost of living Basic Needs Basket (BNB) number and some labour unions have already taken up on the JCTR anticipated numbers and begun flashing them around as a truly scientifically arrived at “thing” and have begun agitating and bracing themselves for showdowns with government and employers to increase living wages.
But in all this, the basic question we need to ask ourselves is this; is there such a scientifically determined moral unit as a Basic Needs Basket (BNB) number that in turn can assist us to determine a Living Wage as is usually being compiled by the JCTR? In many cases, the JCTR- Basic Needs Basket (BNB) Basic Needs Basket advocates also argue for a Living Wage and outright mandates on wages; that a minimum living wage set as an arbitrary level determined by policymakers to be at a level that makes housing, food, transport, energy and health care “affordable.”
Behind this effort is a philosophical claim that employers are morally obligated to pay this “living wage” commensurate with the Basic Needs Basket (BNB) number to employees, so they can afford basic necessities, however ambiguously defined, on a single wage, that involves an individual employee working eight hours a day from Monday to Friday or forty hours a week. This moral argument singles out employers as the morally responsible party in the JCTR-BNB living wage equation, even though the variables that determine a BNB -living wage number go far beyond the wage earned.
But when you look at the various monthly JCTR-BNB numbers and data used, we see that their so called living wage is a function not simply of the wage, but of the cost of housing, food, energy, transportation and a myriad of other factors and the reason we see JCTR-BNB numbers and figures differ from town to town and various rural areas. And we have seen where housing costs are low, the JCTR-BNB living wage number will be lower than it would be in a place like Lusaka where housing costs are high and so forth.
So, in this case, what should matter is not the nominal wage paid by the employer, but the real wage as determined by the cost of everything that a particular single wage is used to purchase.
If we’re agreeable so far, the other question we should be asking ourselves is why then place emphasis only on the employer to be the sole responsible body? And if it’s the real wage that matters, why should there be emphasis or rather fixation on the nominal wage itself? After all, wages in real terms could be increased greatly by forcing down the cost of food, energy, talk time, DSTV, rentals and so on. So why there is no drum beat on grocers or compound Tuntemba’s for example to make their prices of basic necessities affordable? Why are the JCTR led by Fr. Chiti et al not picketing outside Shoprite, Spar, Sana, Pick “n” Pay, Game Stores, DSTV, ZESCO, ZAMTEL, MTN, Airtel, or inside Soweto market, and on Lusaka streets and townships coaxing down dry fish, vegetable, groundnut, finkubala worms, inswa vendors, all the charcoal sellers, maize meal sellers for their high prices?
Why are they not outside Banks, the Zambia Revenue Authority, private education establishments, and so forth telling them to lower their interest rates and fees?
Why are they not outside National Housing Authority headquarters for apparently inhumane efforts by selling homes at the highest prices that markets will bear?
Why haven’t we seen Fr. Chiti, Fr. Luonde, Rev Suzanne Matale, and Bishop Mambo et al, picketing used car dealers on Kafue and Great East Road for not lowering their prices to make transportation affordable for working families? And why are petrol stations’ high margins of U$0.06 cents per litre for merely reselling petrol and diesel paid for from the same employees taxes strangely exempted from protests over the high cost of petrol and diesel? In fact as for petrol, for all we know, not a single Oil Marketing Company in Zambia incurs a foreign exchange cost element or Bank overdraft or foreign exchange based credit line DIE in the procurement of petroleum products because all products are locally provided by the Government of Zambia in Kwacha using the very taxed employees money- a favour never extended to other marketeers at Soweto Market or any other essential services providers in the country. By this we mean, Government doesn’t procure essential food items say-dry fish using tax payers money to a central location for dry fish marketeers to buy collect and resale as their counterpart traders and marketeers owning petrol stations or so called Oil Marketing Companies do.
Certainly all these merchants and service organizations are just as instrumental in determining real wages as any employer. Banks, ZRA, Grocers, Street vendors, landlords, home sellers and the owner of the corner Kantemba can put a huge dent in the family budget when they allow their “greed” to impel them to charge the highest prices they can get away with in the market place.
And yes, it’s true that people regularly denounce landlords as greedy capitalists for charging the highest rentals the market will bear. And there are still plenty of activists who argue for price controls on rentals and food items especially maize meal. But they’re in a small minority nowadays compared to the Kaunda days. The vast majority of voters and policymakers recognize that government-dictated prices on food and housing lead to shortages. Setting a price ceiling on rentals or home prices simply means that fewer housing units will be built, while setting a price ceiling on cooking oil, eggs, milk or bread will simply mean that fewer of those staples will be brought to the market. Zambians know that only after Chiluba’s market liberalization, have we seen a proliferation of shopping malls full of goodies, new housing units and modern office complexes never imagined during the socialist market controlled era under UNIP.
Such assertions are barely even debated anymore, as can be seen in the near-extinction of new rent-control efforts in the political sphere, except perhaps, God forbid, Wynter Kabimba and his warped socialists’ policies are allowed to come back and reign. You won’t see many op-eds arguing for price controls on fruits, cooking oil, bread, and rentals.
You won’t see any articles denouncing homeowners for selling their homes at the highest price they can get, when they really should be slashing prices to make homeownership more affordable for first-time homebuyers.
So, for whatever reason, homeowners, grocers, petrol station, Soweto marketeers, Tuntemba owners and others are exempt from the wrath of the pastors, Bishops, Reverends, Fr. Chiti and his JCTR-BNB number activists for not keeping real wages low. The employers, on the other hand – those who pay the nominal wage – remain well within the sights of these people and their JCTR-BNB number activists since, for some arbitrary reason, the full moral obligation of providing a living wage falls on the employer.
Were food prices to go up by say 10 percent in Lusaka, who is responsible? “Why not–Edgar Lungu of course and his greedy ‘corrupt’ employers, the BNB- living-wage activists at the JCTR will contend. After all, in their minds, it is only Edgar Lungu and the employer who is morally obligated to bring up real wages to match or exceed an increase in the cost of living.
So while price controls on food, housing, and petroleum are generally recognized as a dead end, price controls on wages remain popular. The problem, of course, is that by setting the wage above the value offered by a low-skill worker, employers will simply elect not to hire low-skill workers.
So far it appears as though the JCTR has convinced itself and some Zambians to think that a Low Wage is unacceptable, but at the same time it would appear as though they also accept that a Zero Wage situation would be just Fine. We say this because all this leads to the fact that when faced with high wages, employers will seek to replace employees with non-human workers such as with automated cashiers in coffee shops and self-service takeaway vending machines you often see in Hollywood movies, in fact right here at home we have seen automated ATMs that have taken up bank cashiers jobs and now we have ticketing gates at the Lusaka Kenneth Kaunda International Airport parking lot, and we have also seen several labour-saving devices currently being used on the mines.
But this phenomenon is simply ignored by the experts churning out these JCTR-BNB living-wage monthly numbers. Thus, the argument that employers are morally obligated to not pay low wages becomes strangely silent in the face of too many unemployed workers earning no wage at all.
Indeed, we see few attempts at passing laws mandating that employers hire human beings instead of machines. While it’s no doubt true that some neo-Luddites would love to see this happen, virtually no one argues that employers should not be allowed to employ labour-saving devices. Certainly, anyone making such an argument in a Cabinet meeting at State House is likely to be laughed out of the room since almost everyone immediately recognizes that it would be ridiculously absurd to pass laws mandating that, say a Chinese road builder on the Mongu-Kalabo road, for example, hire people with picks and shovels instead of using bulldozers and paving machines.
Meanwhile, successes by JCTR-BNB “living wage” advocates in other industries, where automation is not as yet practical, have only been driving up prices for consumer goods. Yes, living wages in food, energy, and housing sectors will squeeze profits and bring higher wages for those who keep their jobs, but the mandates will also tend to raise prices for consumers, meaning that real wages in the overall economy have actually gone down, thanks to a rising cost of living.
All said, it’s quite a bizarre strategy that the JCTR-BNB living wage advocates have settled on. It would appear they have nothing better more useful to convince their sponsors to continue spending their money on. Because the current strategy consists of raising the prices of the very consumer goods that they say have become expensive via increasing labour costs. Real wages then go down, and, at the same time, many workers lose their jobs to automation as capital required to automate is made relatively less expensive by a rising cost of labour.
While the JCTR –BNB number’s goal of raising the standard of living for all the workers in Zambia and their families is laudable, it’s apparent, that the JCTR-BNB living wage advocates haven’t exactly thought things through and it makes their moral argument for a JCTR-BNB number based Living Wage…fatal.
Just a thought,