Work for ourselves

2011-07-09 09:22

Real policy innovation which is able to change society is rare. But the introduction of an employment guarantee in India is an innovation of this sort of magnitude, with far-reaching implications for social and economic policy.

Labour federation Cosatu’s general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, recently praised the Indian programme, saying that a similar approach could help defuse the “ticking time bomb” of poverty and unemployment in South Africa.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed in India in 2005. It guarantees 100 days of work to every rural household with unemployed adult members.

The scheme has been rolled out across India and now has more than 55?million participants. And Vavi is correct: it is a model of obvious interest for South Africa, and has been a key source of inspiration for the design of the Community Work Programme.

While the programme is not an employment guarantee, it is designed to explore how this concept could be adapted to South African conditions.

While the programme is still only an ant to India’s elephant, it has grown from 1?500 participants in April 2009 to more than 89?000 people who will have participated at 74 sites across the country by April this year.

If the government target to establish a programme presence in every municipality by 2014 is achieved, the institutional architecture required to roll out a form of employment guarantee will be in place.

The programme arose from a strategy process commissioned by the Presidency. The programme was piloted in partnership with the Department of Social Development in a process managed by policy non-governmental organisation trade and industrial policy strategies.

In April last year, the programme was transferred to the cooperative governance department as a new component in Phase 2 of the Expanded Public Works Programme.

While most public-employment programmes offer an opportunity for short-term, full-time work, the programme prioritises regular, predictable part-time work – typically two days a week, or eight days a month in some areas. This adds up to 100 days of work a year.

The wage rate, set by a ministerial determination, is R60 a day or R480 a month for part-time work. While not a lot of money, it is significant for poor households.

The programme’s emphasis on regular and predictable work recognises the structural nature of unemployment in South Africa.

This means that, while short-term, project-based work certainly helps, participants often exit back into poverty when such work is over because the economy is not creating employment at the required scale.

By offering regular part-time work, the programme creates access to a sustained increase in earnings. This is more likely to have a sustained effect on indicators such as child nutrition.

It also means that injecting significant funds from the programme into the local economy is not a short-term spike – making this a more effective stimulus to local economic development.

While the programme works in partnership with local government, it is implemented by non-profit organisations and is designed to be community driven. The work is identified and prioritised by communities instead of government officials.

Such work must contribute to the public good and must not displace existing jobs. Communities have significant scope to identify their own priorities and needs.

Home-based care for households affected by HIV, TB and other illnesses has become a common priority along with care for orphans, vulnerable children and the elderly.

Food security is also an important part of the scheme.

The programme provides labour for thousands of food gardens at schools and clinics. It also provides labour for food production in HIV-affected households, as well as for child-headed households.

Support for schools has also become a key feature. In Bushbuckridge, for example, the programme, in partnership with local school governing bodies, has placed 550 education assistants in local schools. All these assistants are unemployed matriculants from the area.

Tasks include helping teachers in classrooms with as many as 86 pupils, tutoring homework classes and coaching sports activities, helping in libraries (where these exist), and helping with administrative tasks.

Work in the programme also involves building and maintaining community assets such as rehabilitating disused irrigation canals, constructing earth dams, environmental work and fencing, which is crucial to keep grazing animals away from crops in rural areas.

At the programme site in Manenberg, Cape Town, a partnership has been entered into with the correctional services department.

When prisoners from the area finish their sentences, they “exit” into the programme. At first their work is a form of community service, after which they can become full members of programme.At every site, the programme is unlocking community initiatives and is giving unemployed people an opportunity to earn the respect that comes from earning a living.

Programme participant Velaphi Banda from Kagiso on Joburg’s West Rand explained what this means to him, saying: ‘‘It is nice to eat from what you have earned. It is nicer than eating off someone else’s sweat?.?.?.?At least, this money, I know it is mine. I worked for it. “If you are not working, I think ‘brother, we are hungry and what can we eat’.

“At home you become a burden. So the programme is very helpful.”In South Africa, more than two-thirds of unemployed people are youth.

And the longer people are unemployed, the more unemployable they become – those who have never been employed are least likely to succeed in self-employment.

The programme is designed to break this vicious cycle by providing work for those who need it, instilling the practices and disciplines of work and
re-asserting the link between work and remuneration.

The significance of the programme is that it gives people the dignity of being productive rather than dependent.

» Philip was involved in designing the Community Work Programme for the Presidency, and is based at the policy non-governmental organisation Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies

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