A piece of freedom

2014-05-03 21:23

I’d like to make a claim. Poor and low skill workers aren’t better off than they were in 1994 – real wages have remained stagnant and in some instances have even declined. I based this on the fact that real wage increases are undeniably linked to productivity improvements, and productivity improvements 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 like 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, all while farmworkers’ and elementary workers’ earnings are negligible and mineworkers are at the mercy of unscrupulous moneylenders.

It makes sense; manufacturing is in the doldrums, industrial development is inconsistent, the informal sector continues to grow, we are increasingly leaning towards outsourcing, and we lack 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 at the mouths of market news. Inequality persists; private profits are leading growth and workers’ livelihoods remain stagnant and even declines. An all too favourable -ism. I’m not saying that socialism is better, because I believe in protecting individual liberty.

I graduated with my 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 fruit and veg packer at a well-known South African supermarket. 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 ever since then, it has shocked me to my core as to the way they operate and the way contracts were signed. Cashiers had questioned my application, looked at me like I was mad, that I would 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. We have given them the basic liberties and equal opportunity, but the problem of access and logistics is still a constraint that keeps them from participating in and achieving their full potential.

It is ridiculous that we give 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. GDP still remains the most important indicator for economic performance, with few, second to growth, only considering the social, environmental and employment factors. And then economists say that we still need growth?

I say, growth for who?

May 7 is imminent and still, I have my doubts. I haven’t a clue who I am going to vote. On the one hand, the winner-takes-all approach to governance, poor institutions and a lack of accountability and transparency that is supposed to safeguard democracy has instead undermined democracy and has led to a culture of impunity and abuses of power by the winner, and has 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 realization of my own freedom.

But the political squabbling, outlandish policy proposals and poor service delivery has 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’d be best to vote for the party who takes care of those who are not.

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