Labour View: Scandal of the working poor

Patrick Craven. Picture: Craig Nieuwenhuizen
Patrick Craven. Picture: Craig Nieuwenhuizen

The latest World Employment and Social Outlook report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), featured in last week’s City Press, predicts that global unemployment is going to grow over the next two years to 5.8%.

The number of jobless people will rise from 197.7 million to 203.8 million in 2018.

This will be especially bad news for South Africa, where unemployment is already six times higher than the predicted figure for the world – 36% by the more realistic expanded definition.

One feature of the report that raises important questions for the labour movement is that the “developed” [rich] countries have higher overall levels of unemployment
– 6.2% – than the “emerging” [poor] countries with lower levels of 5.7% and as low as 5.5% in the very poorest countries of Asia and Africa.

This seems to contradict the view that the higher the level of unemployment the deeper the level of poverty and vice versa.

The report reveals, however, that the reason for the shocking level of poverty in the emerging world is that 1.38 billion people – 41.7% of the 3.32 million employed workers – are forced into what is termed “vulnerable employment” on poverty wages, including waste pickers, informal traders and subsistence farmers.

They may not be defined as unemployed, but are definitely poor.

In southern Asia, the proportion of workers deemed to be in vulnerable employment is 73.4% while in sub-Saharan Africa is it 67.8%.

By comparison, the figure for North America is just 6.6%.

Using a different measurement, the ILO calculates that nearly 62% of workers in sub-Saharan Africa earn less than $3.10 (R43) per day and are thus defined as “working poor”.

South Africa suffers from the worst of both worlds, with one of the world’s highest levels of unemployment. Around 5.5 million of the working poor – based on a study in 2015 by University of Cape Town researchers – live on the current poverty threshold of R4 125.

That is why the proposed R3 500 minimum monthly wage is so shocking.

It is an attempt to legitimise the poverty of the working poor and force millions to survive on a pittance.

The main lesson from the ILO report is that levels of poverty are not so much related to the level of unemployment as to the appalling quality of the employment that workers have to endure.

This confutes the argument of organisations like the Free Market Foundation (FMF) that employed workers are a privileged elite who deny the unemployed access to jobs and that employed workers’ “high wages” prevent unemployed workers from getting jobs.

On the contrary, nearly all of the employed workers around the world are hardly any better off than their unemployed neighbours.

The only people to benefit if workers accept lower wages are the employers who will extract even more profits from the unpaid labour of their workers.

That is why unions should continue to demand above-inflation wage increases and not make any concessions to this false FMF argument.

The ILO report also reinforces the message that unions, especially those about to launch the new federation, must move beyond their traditional membership bases and organise the 76% of vulnerable workers in South Africa who are not members of any union at all.

As well as insisting that the new minimum wage must be a living wage – like the R12 500 demanded by National Union of Metalworkers of SA and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – it is also time to revive the campaign for a basic income grant, to ensure that no South African, with or without a job, is condemned to a lifetime of poverty.

Craven is a freelance labour writer

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