We all know about the concept of the minimum wage in South Africa, even though we may not be aware of exactly what it is. Unlike other countries, South Africa’s minimum wage varies by sector, geography and position, and the rules by which they’re applied can be heinously complex.

With minimum wages ranging from less than R2 000 a month to over R6 000, depending on who you are, where you live and what you do, perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is one that’s increasingly cropping up all over the world: not how much should people be paid by law but how much money do you really need to live on?

Or to put it another way, there’s a school of thought gathering pace that says forget about the minimum wage, and start thinking about a realistic living wage. After all, even the grandfather of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, argued that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”.

Data activists at Code4SA are trying to start that conversation in South Africa by looking at one of the most undervalued sectors of society – domestic workers. They’ve put together a simple newsgaming tool to compare what we pay housekeepers compared to what they need to live on.

You can try it out here.

The stats Code4SA has gathered cover average wages for the sector, average food costs and transport costs, and the tool its developed lets you manipulate a set of sliders to see where your employees might fit in. There’s a set of assumptions Code4SA has made for the default settings, but you can tweak them to get an understanding of what it’s really like to live on a housekeeper’s salary.

The wider project, says director of Code4SA Adi Eyal, will include interviews and case studies of domestic workers gathered as part of their research.

“70% of domestic workers are the only earners in their households,” Eyal says, “What we wanted to do is look at how much it actually costs to live, rather than look at a top down rate.

“Domestic workers only have an active role in wage negotiations about 10% of the time,” he continues, “So the question is should you be exploiting someone just because you’re legally allowed to?”

The question, of course, is bigger than your household and what you can afford – and as digital disruption pushes down the value of human labour the living wage issue is one that’s may well affect your job as well as your housekeeper’s some time soon. That bible of the fiscally conservative, The Economist, devoted an issue to the problem of labour and pay in the 21st century last year, saying:

High minimum wages will simply accelerate the replacement of workers by machines. Punitive tax rates will deter entrepreneurship and scare off the skilled on whom prosperity in the digital era depends. The best thing governments can do is to raise the productivity and employability of less-skilled workers. That means getting rid of daft rules that discourage hiring, like protections which make it difficult to sack poor performers. It means better housing policy and more investment in transport…

And perhaps most pertinently:

As technology progresses and disrupts more jobs, more workers will be employable only at lower wages. The modest earnings of the generation that technology leaves behind will need to be topped up with tax credits or wage subsidies. That need not mean imposing higher tax rates on the affluent, but it does mean closing the loopholes and cutting the giveaways from which they benefit.

Interested to find out more about how much it costs to live in South Africa? Check out Code4SA’s living-wage.co.za here.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.