When does work mean a real job?

IF YOU consider how much public

debate is focused on jobs, it is curious

how little consideration is given

to what we understand a job to

mean.

“Too few people work,” the

National Development Plan (NDP)

tells us. But is this true? “Almost

everyone works,” the International

Labour Organisation (ILO) said

when it adopted “decent work” as its

objective, “but not everyone is

employed.”

There is, in other words, a distinction

between “work” and being

employed, in the sense of someone

who is employed by an employer,

and therefore in an employment

relationship. However, the fact that

people are not in an employment

relationship does not mean they do

not work.

At times the NDP appears to be

mindful of the distinction between

work and employment, in what I

shall refer to as the strict sense. It

refers, for example, to the need to

create “jobs and livelihoods”. In fact

the NDP has almost nothing to say

about creating livelihoods, and what

it does have to say in this regard

relates to the rural economy. What it

has a lot to say about is jobs.

It may be said that someone who

is self-employed, for example, has a

job. But what most people in SA

understand a job to mean is employment

in the strict sense. Evidently

this is what the NDP and its companion,

the New Growth Path (NGP),

have in mind when they set job targets

for the nation. Moreover, they

mean jobs in the formal economy –

surely a government minister could

not be advocating the creation of

informal jobs (in other words,

unregulated, non-compliant and

non-tax-paying jobs).

When Planning Minister Trevor

Manuel gave a presentation on the

NDP that I attended, he suggested

what was needed was more people

taking home wage packets. It is

understandable to think of wage

packets in a society where people in

general aspire to waged employment

as a means to subsist, and to

the benefits associated with a wage

packet. This aspiration is part of

what I refer to as a wage culture.

This wage culture has been

generated over the period of SA’s

industrialisation. More than just

being an aspiration for waged

employment, it is an aspiration for

employment in a standard job: one

that is full-time and continuous

(which is a realistic way to express

the notion of “permanency”). But is

it still realistic, in a period of

de-industrialisation?

Apart from a brief window in the

early 1980s, when employment in a

standard job might have seemed a

realistic aspiration, the proportion

of the working population employed

in standard jobs has been steadily

declining. Hundreds of thousands of

South Africans living in urban

townships have not seen a wage

packet for 20 years or more. This is,

of course, not only the situation in

this country, but globally.

De-industrialisation is not something

we should welcome, nor is it

entirely inevitable. It should go

without saying that measures advocated

by the NGP and the NDP to

counter de-industrialisation should

be supported. At the same time it is

not realistic to expect that through

large-scale projects such as these it

will be possible to generate full

employment.

The problem with setting job targets,

then, is that it feeds into our

wage culture, by creating expectations

not only that there will be jobs

in the conventional sense, but that

there will be standard, formal jobs.

On the one hand, it encourages an

attitude of dependency among those

without jobs. On the other it leads to

the adoption of inappropriate proposals

to facilitate achieving the targets.

The proposals of the NDP are a

particularly stark example, as I shall

explain.

Take, for example, the “indicative

scenarios” in the NDP. Compared to

the relatively modest growth projected

in the productive sectors of

the economy (on even its most optimistic

scenarios) the number of

jobs that services are expected to

generate over the next 30 years is

huge. It is in the region of 100 percent

in what the NDP terms “leader

or high-paid services (for example,

finance, transport)”. In what it calls

“follower services”, namely retail

and personal services, the projected

increase is 157 percent.

It is somewhat ironic to depict

“finance” as a “leader or high-paid”

service, since its “growth” over the

past decade can be attributed in

large part to the decidedly low-paid

services provided by labour brokers,

cleaning and security services.

Many of these jobs were not new, in

the sense that the workers filling

them are performing the same functions

as were previously performed

in-house in manufacturing, mining

and agriculture. If only modest

growth in the productive sectors is

projected, the question arises how a

demand for services of the order the

NDP envisages can possibly arise,

particularly since the employment

of the workers performing them has

already been externalised. The contradiction

between the job target

and what seems realistic is even

more glaring in the case of retail

and personal services. If there is

only a modest increase in jobs in the

productive sector, where will the

increased demand for these services

come from?

Consider some of the measures

the NDP proposes should be adopted

to realise these targets. Having identified

the need for a more responsive

labour market, it identifies three

“key targets and implementable

actions”, under the heading “Labour

Regulation”. These are very old hat

indeed. More tellingly, they primarily

concern the employment of

workers in standard jobs.

Thus two of these “actions”

regurgitate almost identical proposals

submitted to the government

more than a decade ago. One

(concerning “an approach to

handling probationary periods”) has

already given rise to an amendment

of the legislation. The other concerns

an issue that has been debated

ad nauseam, concerning the simplification

of disciplinary procedures

for dealing with cases of poor

performance and misconduct. The

third issue concerns the hoary old

issue of the perceived misuse of the

Commission for Conciliation,

Mediation and Arbitration by “highearners”.

Given the importance the NDP

itself accords to job creation, these

proposals are staggeringly inconsequential.

While it would be unfair to

write off the NDP on this basis, the

message these proposals conveys is

that we can muddle along as before.

Very possibly SA’s wage culture

is already changing, by virtue of the

sheer numbers of those who survive

without employment in the strict

sense, including those who rely on

government grants.

What is lacking in our public

discourse is an acknowledgement

that it needs to change more quickly,

and that we need to develop a Plan B

that addresses the aspirations of

those who have no prospect of

employment in the strict sense, let

alone employment in a standard job.

The ILO’s concept of decent work

could help us develop a broadly

acceptable Plan B, and both the NDP

and the NGP pay lip service to the

concept. However, as a consequence

of the dominance of our wage culture,

the concept of decent work is

equated in our public discourse with

employment in a standard job. It is

not meant to be. Decent work is

intended to encompass all forms of

work, including self-employment.

There are, for example, tens of

thousands of part-time employees

who enable our retailers to keep

their stores open after hours, and at

weekends. Part-time employment

could be decent work, even though it

is not a standard job, because it is

ongoing.

Promoting part-time employment

could be part of a Plan B. To do

so, it would be necessary to develop

policies tailored to the needs of parttime

employees. By the same token,

the concept of decent work enjoins

us to develop policies and regulations

that are tailored to the needs of

workers who are self-employed, or

who work in social enterprises. This

necessitates jettisoning the idea that

the same standard – a standard

premised on employment in a standard

job – should apply to all workers.

It also entails getting officialdom

to understand and apply some

existing policies and regulations.

Employment in public works

ought to be the default option for

those who are unable to secure a

livelihood through other means. But

this means replacing the discredited

model of providing temporary

employment to people, premised on

the fabulous supposition that they

will acquire the skills that will

enable them to obtain standard jobs.

This supposition is itself a product

of our wage culture. The institution

of a community works programme

(which is still in the pilot phase) that

provides ongoing part-time employment

on community projects is a

hopeful development.

What is needed above all to

realise Plan B is an honest admission

that Plan A is not feasible for all

South Africans.

. This is the first in a six-part

series. Former trade unionist Theron

is a practising labour lawyer, and is

co-ordinator of the labour and enterprise

policy research group (LEP) in

the law faculty at UCT.


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