Decent work for all?

Since its launch, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) has come to be regarded as the government’s flagship employment project. Its aims to provide temporary job opportunities supported by training to enable job seekers to find more permanent employment.

But what has the programme achieved in the period since its launch in 2004? The findings of the Human Sciences Research Council’s mid-term review of the EPWP have been released.

There is a new urgency in planning for expanded public works, as evidenced in the announcement by the Department of Public Works of a second phase of the EPWP.
Virtually all surveys of public attitude have found that the most urgent priority in South Africa is jobs creation. This is reflected in government statements, as set out in the first theme of 2003’s Growth and Development Summit of 2003: “More jobs, better jobs, decent work for all”.

Will the second phase have a greater impact than the first? At the Growth and Development Summit, the EPWP was structured to be “large enough to have a substantial impact” on mass unemployment. Although it is one of a number of initiatives to create jobs, the hope of the unemployed rests on public provision of jobs. Short- and longer-term objectives are to alleviate poverty through halving unemployment by 2014.

The research
There is a great need to address the crisis of unemployment, particularly as those who suffered most intensely under apartheid are also those who have benefited least in terms of greater employment in the recent past. There were 4,4-million unemployed in September 2006. Of these, black African people constituted 3,9-million, of which an estimated 3,2-million were “discouraged” job-seekers—those who had given up looking for a job.

This gives an indication of the extent of the enormous demand for employment. For the EPWP to be effective in contributing to halving unemployment by 2014, it needs to create more than a million jobs each year.

In the mid-term review, indicators of performance in six key objectives were identified: the number of work opportunities created from the launch in 2004 to the “mid-term” in 2007; full-time equivalent figures; the number of training days achieved; the allocation of budgets to projects; the proportion of the project budgets actually spent; and the demographic element—the achievement of employment of targeted proportions of women, youth and the disabled.

At the launch, the target of one million jobs over five years was set—put more qualitatively, 650 000 “real” jobs (measured as equivalent to a year’s work).

The following findings were drawn. Firstly, the EPWP is succeeding in three important ways:

  • the target of one million work opportunities is in sight or has now been achieved;
  • the targeted proportion of work opportunities for women and youth (although not for the disabled) has been reached; and
  • departments have been convinced to take the EPWP seriously by allocating funding to public works.

However, the EPWP is failing in five other important ways:

  • decent work: minimum standards for length of a job are not being reached;
  • training: only 19% of targeted training has been met;
  • actual spending: only 59% of the funds allocated over three years have been spent;
  • wages: overheads and other costs are rising while wages are static; and
  • earnings: earnings per job are declining over time.

Although the key objective of one million job opportunities may well be attained and the targeted proportions of women, youth and the disabled are being achieved, there are still major deficiencies. Unfortunately, these shortfalls undermine the programme’s broad achievements.

What can be done?
The review recommends that the EPWP should be substantially redesigned to affect the level of unemployment. The labour intensity of infrastructure development should be increased, direct government employment should be undertaken by line departments, and enterprise development should be supported by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Research undertaken by the HSRC indicates that at lower levels of growth, the EPWP should be contributing more than one million jobs yearly if the target of halving unemployment by 2014 is to be met. These recommendations made by the review point to the way forward—will the second phase mark their adoption?

Dr David Hemson, a director in the HSRC’s Centre for Service Delivery, conducted the analysis and review of the EPWP Mid-Term Review, incorporated in the Expanded Public Works Programme Synthesis Report, which was written by Geci Karuri-Sebina of the HSRC’s Centre for Service Delivery and included contributions from local and international partners

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