OPINION: Student employment: Slave labour or ethical business practice?


HAVING worked during my university studies more than 10 years ago, in fact, since high school, and now being in the employer’s seat hiring the very same group of people I once belonged to, it’s sad to see that not much has changed when it comes to students’ work opportunities and wages.

In the current world where university fees are soaring off the charts, and with the recent #feesmustfall protests at local universities, it is clear that students are struggling to pay their tertiary fees, let alone for their living expenses.

Whether students are paying their own way through university or someone else is paying; and whether they live with parents or on their own, there is still a life to be lived and bills to be paid. For this, students need money … and what seems to not have changed are the poor wages students receive, and sadly have come to expect.

Through market research, I have come to find that most students receive a laughable wage which begs the question of how on earth they survive? Even worse, some students are even happy to receive this bottom-of-the-barrel wage. Students work part time as bartenders or promoters, among others. These jobs are notorious for the long hours and shoddy hourly pay. Understandably, some businesses receive low budgets from clients which, in turn, only allows for low wages. However, there are some businesses which underpay their staff and keep large profits.

Business is business and, sadly, in this country, employees are usually paid less. Yes, business is about profit, but how can anyone sleep at night knowing their workers are paid the equivalent of a loaf of bread and milk, if that, and are struggling to make ends meet.

As a business owner and ex-student, I see both sides of the coin. The fact remains, though, that students are still working, in fact, grovelling, for a pay of between R25 and R100 per hour, if that, for part-time work.

Consider petrol costs and they’re basically left with nothing. Is this ethical? Even more saddening and shocking is that when asked, some students said they would like to earn an hourly rate similar to that which they already receive. Have students become comfortable with earning chump change? Or is it a sad reality that asking for more pay has become a fear which they’d rather not face.

I have always paid my employees very well. Although it is not the usual way for a business to function, I feel it is only fair to pay someone their value.

Stupid thinking or ethical practice?

I feel I am uplifting people and helping them survive in this world where money is everything and ridiculously low wages seem to be the accepted norm in youth employment. I agree that experience dictates wages, but these are students trying to pay for both their education and living.

Are those who pay employees next to nothing contributing to a mentality of if you’re a student you are doomed to a low-paying job? Are we not creating a devalued mindset among students, compounding the belief that they must take what they can get and be happy? Are we as business owners not disempowering students and the youth?

I have always crawled before I walked and worked my way up the career ladder but, although this may be what students need to learn in life, is it really that necessary? What a dire picture we are painting for students – a picture of continual grovelling to eventually, hopefully, maybe, one day, if that, find employment where they are paid their worth. Life, and the future of this country, seems hard enough as it is, and throughthe minimum wages we pay, we’re creating an even harsher view of life from the onset, don’t you think?

As a proudly South African business owner, I ask fellow business owners to start empowering students and young workers. Create a payment structure that benefits both your business and your employees. Let’s turn old-fashioned business methods upside down and focus on payments which help students to pay their way and feel valued.

Business will always revolve around profit, but an even better way to feel abundant in business is to help others feel abundant as well.

How are we as business owners going to affect students’ work ethics and mentality from now on? After all, these are our country’s future employees, employers, leaders and CEOs we’re molding.

Stacey Woensdregt

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