Inside Labour | There is a darker view of joblessness

What have we come to when we celebrate, as some people did last week, the fact that the latest official quarterly unemployment statistics – at 29.1% – have remained unchanged, Terry Bell asks
What have we come to when we celebrate, as some people did last week, the fact that the latest official quarterly unemployment statistics – at 29.1% – have remained unchanged, Terry Bell asks

What have we come to when we celebrate, as some people did last week, the fact that the latest official quarterly unemployment statistics – at 29.1% –have remained unchanged.

This is despite the fact that it has been acknowledged that the “expanded definition” of unemployment has edged up to 38.7%.

The celebrations are especially concerning because the latest statistics refer to the fourth quarter of last year, which includes the festive season and is traditionally when more part-time jobs are created.

But words such as ‘expanded’ and ‘official’, along with percentages, are enough to make heads spin.

I think it’s time to look at what all this means. In the first place, to be regarded as officially unemployed, a person has to be “jobless, actively seeking work and available to take a job”. Nearly three out of every 10 men and women of working age in South Africa qualify – they want jobs, are actively looking for work and are available.

These are the women who trudge every weekday from suburban door to suburban door and they are the men who line major urban roads hoping to be picked up as casual labourers. Or they may be high school, technikon or university graduates who send reams of applications and CVs in reply to job adverts.

No matter the level of work sought, no matter the qualifications of the seekers, “actively seeking work” can be a mind-numbing and depressing activity. And when the efforts of these people do not result in any paid labour for a week or more, they are added to the statistics as unemployed.

It’s small wonder then, that, after months or even years of fruitlessly looking for work or being in situations where there is obviously no work to be had, many people simply give up. Their numbers then make up the additional – and less frequently quoted – “expanded” unemployment figure.

When added to the official unemployment rate, this figure makes up the expanded definition of unemployment. Since both groups comprise people who have no work, they offer a more accurate reflection of joblessness when put together.

But even this expanded measure is far from accurate – it ignores the vast army of what has been termed the “hidden unemployed”. In some countries, these people are referred to as the underemployed – women and men who are paid for one hour or more of work a week.

What kind of work is done and how much is paid for it is regarded as irrelevant – do a job for as little as one hour a week, get paid, and you are officially deemed to have joined the ranks of the employed. And this is not a South African definition; it is the international standard agreed to in 1982 by that international tripartite bureaucracy, the International Labour Organisation.

Significantly, the latest round of employment statistics noted that there was an increase in the number of workers employed in the services sector. Many of these would be people on temporary contracts – those who are part of the so-called gig economy.

One of the largest of these groups is those women and men seen in many areas wearing government-issued Expanded Public Works Programme bibs. Many of the workers employed under the programme earn the set minimum wage of R11 an hour.

Before even taking on the matter raised last week by public sector unions about some pay in the early childhood sector being as low as R6 an hour, we should ask: “What is a living wage? And should someone paid an inadequate – starvation – wage be classified as gainfully employed?”

Anyone who fails to look to the reality behind the percentages reinforces the view that there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.


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