INSIDE LABOUR: Unemployment - the potentially explosive reality

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

In these straitened economic times with calls for belt-tightening and austerity, there seems to be quite a lot of clutching at straws of optimism. Recently, this came in the form of looking superficially at jobless statistics and releasing a clarion cry of hope: township economies.

According to some commentators, and broadcast on national radio, economies in townships are "booming".

Townships - peri-urban legacies of apartheid geography - are, indeed, a hive of economic activity. Economic optimists cite the entrepreneurial spirit that has seen the spread of roadside food stalls, hair dressing salons and creches - all classic examples of individuals who have identified not just a niche, but the need for a business to fill a void. 

Taken at face value, this could well be assessed as an indication of the "way to the future".  But it’s also propaganda for the belief touted by free marketeers that small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) have the potential to rescue the country from economic crisis and potential ruin.

When the detail is analysed it appears obvious that the future could well be what the township economies offer. But that would only happen if and when the residents of the leafy suburbs are driven by a collapsed economy to move into survival mode.

Should that happen, they would not even have the opportunity exercised by Michael M, who relocated several years ago from a township to a relatively affluent suburb. There, the opportunities for casual work for a well-spoken former furniture worker and French polisher were much greater. I interviewed him shortly before I heard a broadcast promotion of township economies.

Michael is 52 and describes himself, cynically, as an entrepreneur.  In between a variety of odd jobs, he sells stickers at traffic lights in the suburbs. On average, he earns R60 a day or roughly R1 700 a month, with an occasional "bonus" of one-off jobs.

Superficially it is a positive story, but Michael’s income relies on him being available in the suburbs, where the rent of a single room ranges between R2 000 and R3 500. So, while he is still classified as employed, he is also homeless, one of the legion of street people. Like the township economies hype, a look at the fuller picture uncovers a much harsher and sadder reality.

Employed but homeless

However, Michael is a great deal better off than perhaps millions of other individuals listed officially as employed. This was highlighted recently, when there was some optimism expressed with the release of quarterly unemployment statistics that revealed that the official unemployment rate had remained unchanged at 29.1%.

Largely ignored was the Stats SA acknowledgement that the "expanded definition" of unemployment had edged up to 38.7% in the fourth quarter of last year. But this was the festive season quarter when, historically, more part-time jobs are created.

And part-time is very much the name of the employment statistics game. To be listed as officially employed means only that an individual has undertaken paid work for at least one hour in a week.

What sort of work and how much is paid is irrelevant: this is the internationally accepted definition adopted by that tripartite bureaucracy, the International Labour Organisation. So a woman with a one-day-a-week job as a domestic and a man picked up at the side of the road for a couple of hours of manual labour, along with the 48-hour permanent employee, are all "employed".

And, as casualisation — the gig or zero hours economy — spreads, so will increasing numbers of workers become effectively underemployed. This needs to be closely monitored, along with the realisation that official — and accurate — figures for economic growth do not automatically translate into greater well-being for the working-class majority.

What kind of jobs?

There may be more jobs. But what kind of jobs? And at what rate of pay? It is not a case of there being lies, damned likes and then statistics: it is essential to look beyond the bare figures to reveal the reality.

That reality includes women and men labouring on temporary contracts under the Expanded Public Works Programme, where the set minimum wage is R11 an hour. And, earlier this week, public sector trade unions claimed that there are workers in the early childhood sector who are paid as little as R6 an hour.

Against this background, it is officially acknowledged that nearly four in every 10 South Africans of working age has no work. If the under-employed and those workers on what can only be described as starvation wages are taken into account, the reality is almost too horrible to contemplate.

This is not just a crisis, it is tragedy of massive proportions that no superficial commentary or rosy rhetoric can disguise. The fuse on the powder keg that the labour movement warned about several years ago, is burning, and seems near the point of detonation.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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