Massive salary disparities between those in the upper echelons of corporate management and those lower down the ladder are fodder for heated debate in a country racked by social inequality. Co-authors of the 2014 book Executive Salaries in South Africa: Who should have a say on pay, Associate Professor Debbie Collier (deputy dean of UCT's Faculty of Law) and Kaylan Massie discuss whether there's a 'best practice' for remunerating those at the top of the earnings pile.
Deepening income inequality is a complex global challenge – a dangerous phenomenon that requires a nuanced policy and regulatory response. A persuasive body of evidence tells us that the high levels of income inequality we are experiencing are both socially and economically bad for us. The social ills experienced in highly unequal societies include high rates of criminal activity, obesity, substance abuse, mental illness, depression and anxiety, poor educational outcomes, and low levels of trust and social mobility. The evidence also suggests that extreme inequality impacts negatively on economic growth.
Excessive executive pay, in comparison to pay in job grades lower down the scale, is of course only one aspect of the inequality problem: in South Africa, the apartheid legacy has left vulnerable members of our society living on the outskirts of economic activity, with poor access to public facilities such as transport, health and education. This exacerbates and sustains an inequality problem that is still largely defined along racial lines – even though we are experiencing increasing levels of intra-racial income inequality.
More regulation is a double-edged sword
In Executive Salaries in South Africa: Who should have a say on pay? we suggest that corporate pay policies need to be determined by a more transparent and fair process, with a view to reducing the pay gap.
Is greater regulation of pay necessary to achieve this? Regulatory interventions are often ineffective. There is some evidence, globally, that increased disclosure requirements for executive pay can in fact lead to peer comparisons of pay and pay increases, rather than the restraint in executive pay originally intended.
However, tax policy and transfer reform in the form of greater redistribution measures could well have a positive impact on inequality levels. In addition we suggest some reform – and better use – of two other areas of law and regulation: employment equity law, and corporate governance.
On the employment equity front, section 27 of the Employment Equity Act already obliges employers to report on income differentials within the organisation. This is a wholly underutilised area of our law. However, we are critical of the fact that the reporting requirements exclude share incentive schemes and discretionary payments – as often, excessive levels of executive pay are bound up in incentive schemes – and we suggest reform in this regard.
The Employment Equity Act requires employers to take measures to progressively reduce a disproportionate income differential, and provides a mechanism for trade unions or employees to request information on the wage gap during wage negotiations. This provides an underutilised opportunity for workers to engage with management on ways to reduce the wage gap.
At a corporate governance level, rules are provided for the setting of pay. The King Code of Governance Principles of 2009 (King III Code) requires that directors and executives be remunerated fairly and responsibly, and that remuneration policies should be guided by the principle of sustainability.
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