Jobless: Nothing about us without us

2012-05-12 09:35

The unemployed are always spoken about.

Trade unionists pretend to speak for the jobless, but when a powerful federation like Cosatu sets its face against a youth wage subsidy to allow youngsters into the job market, you have to question its good faith.

Can government claim the mantle of steward of the unemployed? In ­policy perhaps, but not in practice.

Yes, the state extends a massive social safety net to catch the unemployed with a matrix of child, disability and old age grants, but there is no income grant.

And the set of labour law amendments that could soon be made law will make life tougher for new entrants.

We would bet our house on whether a single jobseeker was asked what they think of the tightened laws that will lock them out of an already unfriendly labour market.

This is not an argument for labour flexibility ­either. The argument of flexibility is business’s, which also likes to speak for the jobless but really speaks for its own interests.

South Africa is not a low-wage economy. As economist Mike Schussler’s study for the union federation Uasa has shown, ours is a relatively high-wage ­economy for the employed.

The big problem is that ours is a no-wage economy for most South Africans, with the number of grants paid to adults far outstripping the amount of wages paid to working-age people.

This is a conundrum with enormous implications. The manufacturing and mining sectors are in decline, and the state is the only employer still growing its numbers.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has warned that this envelope cannot continue growing, or it will crowd out infrastructure spending.

It’s about time that society actively seeks out the voice of the unemployed and listens very carefully to what it wants.

Every time the employment statistics come out, the number of discouraged workers (those who have given up working) gets higher and higher, driving up the rate of ­unemployment to close to one in two working-age people.

Why is this? We don’t really know.

Interesting research from Adcorp suggests that employment is higher than believed, and that people are finding occupations and work in ways the economy can’t measure.

This is borne out by statistics showing that the numbers of creditors are higher than the numbers of registered ­employees.

This suggests either that households earning grants are buying on credit, or that more people are working than the numbers reveal.

It’s time for the state and the private sector to put an ear to the ground, or the only time the jobless express their voice is when they ask for a little something at traffic lights or shout from ­behind the burning barricades.

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