DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko sparked a massive online response on Monday when she posed the question: “What was your first work opportunity? Who took a chance on you with no experience?”
The question resonated on social media, which has been brimming with views on the growing rhetoric between trade union federation Cosatu and the DA over the youth wage subsidy – a wedge issue for political groups hoping to score points with the countries massive unemployed demographic.
Mazibuko told the Mail & Guardian she asked the question after hearing Western Cape premier Helen Zille tell young people at an event to highlight the province’s “Work and Skills for 100 000” programme how she got her first work experience.
“She started out as a cadet reporter, getting paid [next to] nothing and working 12-hour days. Someone took a chance on her when she was very young and there were few women reporters, and now she’s the premier of the Western Cape,” said Mazibuko.
Responses to Mazibuko streamed in from the twittersphere, and didn’t stop coming until late afternoon.
The response from twitter users would seem to affirm the DA’s argument that even a low-paid work opportunity provides a path to better employment, with many reporting low-paid jobs or unpaid internships as their first foray into the working world. Banks, fast-food outlets and large retailers featured frequently in the snap survey of first jobs, as did working as a cashier or packer.
Melissa Attridge (@MelissaAttridge), said her first job in magazines paid so badly she had to waitress in the evenings to make money. “[I] was just happy to have a foot in the door,” she tweeted. Attridge later went on to become an editor at Associated Magazines.
eNews reporter Lester Kiewit(@lesterkk) worked as a shelf packer at Woolworths as a grade 10 student. “Worked myself up to senior operational assistant by matric,” he tweeted.
Clint (@clinty10111) said he started at Nedbank as an admin assistant and is now a project manager, while risk management consultant Bulelani Mfaco (@bulelanimfaco) said his first job was handing out pamphlets for Capitec Bank.
As for Mazibuko, her first paid job was as a waitress at a Café Venetto at the Durban Waterfront. “I had to do a few unpaid shifts first to prove that I was up for the job. It’s how a lot of people in waitering get started. First you have to demonstrate your work ethic,” she said.
“I could work unpaid shifts because I had a home to go back to and there was food on the table. For other people that’s not an option. But the state can incentivise companies to take a chance on someone,” she said.
Mazibuko said she was fascinated by the response she received. “It was a clear illustration that everyone who works has been the beneficiary of a benevolent opportunity from someone at the beginning,” she said.
But she added the she wasn’t making a case for the idea that every young person needed to start with a lowly job.
“I was making the case that nobody who works today works because they sauntered into a room and were given a job with no experience. They all had somebody take a chance on them, whether or not they were paid well. And some [of the respondents] were paid well; they were researchers on a university campus,” she said.
She dismissed Cosatu’s claims that a wage subsidy would allow companies to exploit young workers and push older workers out of the labour force.
“All of this takes place within the existing labour legislation. It still [offers] a proper day’s wage, governed by labour regulation, as are your working hours and your benefits,” she said, adding, “I’ve yet to hear a reasonable argument as to why [Cosatu] opposes this subsidy.”
Mazibuko said that if government embraced the youth wage subsidy as policy, it would not result in “slave labour” or bad working conditions for young people. “It will simply amount to an opportunity, which is what we all had, and which should be extended to more people,” she said.
She said the responses she received might be a starting point from which to conduct a larger, more formal survey or it could be the basis of a petition.
The youth wage subsidy is currently before the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) which will make recommendations on the matter to Cabinet. The treasury has budgeted R5-billion for the subsidy, which will be used to reimburse companies that hire inexperienced young people. The subsidy is reportedly supported by both government and business but is being held up by Cosatu, which is stridently opposed to it.
On Monday, Zille challenged President Jacob Zuma to make a decision on the youth wage subsidy, saying: “Are you allowing Cosatu to hold you to ransom because you want to be re-elected in Mangaung?”
The minister for economic development in the Western Cape, Alan Winde, says the “Work and Skills for 100 000 programme” has been so successful that it is now oversubscribed, with over 2 000 first-time job seekers placed in six-month work posts and about 70% of those securing full-time work.
Cosatu in the Western Cape dismissed the claims, saying the DA was “trying to dress up [an old activity] as a wage subsidy for propaganda purposes” and accused the programme of being biased towards DA supporters.
The trade union federation said the launch of the wage subsidy in the Western Cape was “a gimmick to make political mileage and one that workers have seen through”.