No freedom for the poor

2014-05-06 00:00

I’D like to make a claim. Poor and low-skill workers aren’t better off today than they were in 1994, as real wages have remained stagnant and, in some instances, have declined. I base this on the fact that real wage increases are undeniably linked to improved productivity, and improved productivity is linked to skills. Hence, low-skill workers earn less because productivity is poor.

As a country with the majority of its labour force with low or no skills, we’d expect the heavy labour-intensive industries such as manufacturing to be at the forefront, absorbing all that labour. But no.

What do we find instead? A booming service economy, booming financial services and a booming stock exchange, while farm workers’ and elementary workers’ earnings are negligible and mine workers are at the mercy of unscrupulous moneylenders.

It makes sense that manufacturing is in the doldrums, industrial development is inconsistent, the informal sector continues to grow, we are increasingly leaning towards outsourcing and we lack the innovation and inventiveness necessary to drive new growth opportunities.

Companies’ revenues are moderating, but dividends and profits are wonderful. “Earnings are up” and “costs are down” are the headlines of market news. Inequality persists, private profits are leading growth and workers’ livelihoods remain stagnant or are in decline.

An all too favourable -ism. I’m not saying that socialism is better, because I believe in protecting individual liberty.

I graduated with an honours degree in economics last year. Prospects were good, but as a young person with no experience, it has been difficult for me to find a job. So I decided to apply for a job as a fruit and vegetable packer at a well-known South African supermarket chain. With little skills required, I knew a low wage would follow. I guess I wanted to learn something new. Like all people who want to make a name for themselves and get a foot in the door, I figured nothing beats experience. But since then, it has shocked me to my core as to the way the company operates and the way contracts are signed. Cashiers questioned my application, looked at me like I was mad to want to work at such a place for so little money.

And before this, I would blindly question the expression of their discontent every time I did my shopping.

Nelson Mandela said that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians. Well, I believe our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the poorest of the poor. They have the basic human liberties and equal opportunities, but the problems of access and logistics are still a constraint that keeps them from participating in and achieving their full potential in the economy.

It is ridiculous that we have a system that gives people the freedom to accumulate wealth beyond their wildest dreams but yet we hold the majority slaves and exploit their ignorance to keep the economic machine well oiled.

We choose to use profit-led growth as a measure for economic prosperity. The GDP still remains the most important indicator for economic performance, with few considering the social, environmental and employment factors. And then economists say that we still need growth?

I say, growth for who?

The elections are tomorrow and still I have my doubts — I haven’t a clue who I am going to vote for.

On the one hand, the winner-takes-all approach to governance, along with poor institutions and the lack of accountability and transparency, which are supposed to safeguard democracy, have instead undermined democracy and led to a culture of impunity and abuses of power by the winner, and have caused the “losers” to reject democracy as a peaceful means for change in favour of an accepted democratic rotation of leadership.

On the other hand, I cannot ignore the ruling party’s role in the liberation struggle and realisation of my own freedom.

But the political squabbling, outlandish policy proposals and poor service delivery have made it very difficult for me to see who truly has the interests of the poor at heart.

In spite of everything though, I am free, so it would be best to vote for the party that takes care of those who are not. — Voices24.

• Rameez Flowers is a University of Stellenbosch and University of the Western Cape economics graduate.

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