The jobs summit has come and gone, promises and pledges were made and agreements were signed, but Mr Makola — a roadside jobseeker at a busy intersection in Midrand — is less optimistic about the prospects of ever benefiting from the 275 000 new jobs a year promised. Makola and his fellow roadside job seekers walk a draining 30km daily return trip to their job-hunting spot from the nearby Tembisa township hoping to find odd jobs from passing motorists and contractors.
It does appear that this group of men knew very little to nothing about the jobs summit that was supposedly intended to find solutions to their unemployment ordeal, despite being a few metres from where the event was held. When quizzed about their knowledge of the event, they responded: “People just came here and took our pictures without our permission … they don’t even speak to us and we have solutions.”
The feelings of hopelessness among these middle-aged men resonate with the general aura of public cynicism and discontent about the practicality of large meetings in creating jobs or at least formulating workable jobs solutions. Similar meetings have been held before, at he national, provincial and local levels, without making a dent to the unemployment situation. But to dismiss any job-creation efforts as simply pointless when the unemployment rate stands at 27% and growing, is totally insensitive and unjustified. The question to ask is whether the interventions proposed by the summit are appropriate and sufficient to turn the tide against joblessness, especially, for a typical unemployed South African like Makola, who has no formal or market-relevant skills.
Job-creation interventions have rightly been focused at the youth, sometimes to the exclusion of South African adults, who increasingly find themselves languishing in the doldrums and are among those classified as discouraged jobseekers. These people are not actively searching for work or cannot find work that requires their skills. The estimated unemployment rate, including discouraged jobseekers, is 37% or 14-million people. Employment-creation interventions cannot simply wish away discouraged adults, many of whom swing between periods of active and inactive job searching because of a lack income until they are desperate to pay their rent.
A number of roadside jobseekers have not had any formal employment for many years and often retreat back to their villages in provinces such as Limpopo when jobs are not forthcoming. Their age and perhaps their lack of formal skills disqualify them from many employment initiatives, which mostly prefer the youth. Although many are prepared to accept just about any job, others have devised strategies that make them identifiable as experienced workers in certain trades.
Roadside job searching is becoming a widespread phenomenon across major cities, as is evidenced by the groups of men and women who stand by the wayside or next to hardware retailers, waving placards and artisanal tools. This job search strategy has also found popularity among unemployed graduates in order to mitigate the barriers of finding work through formal channels, social networks and walk-ins. But as Makola and his fellow jobseekers attest, idling by the roadside not knowing if and when you will be hired is a debilitating experience. People encounter the highest levels of exploitation from being overworked, underpaid or unpaid to being defrauded of identities and systematically excluded.
Vulnerable as they are, roadside jobseekers are sometimes required to have strict hiring requirements such as medical fitness certificates, tax numbers and bank statements. One gentleman recounts a harrowing experience during the construction of a nearby high-end shopping mall, where he worked for three months only for the subcontracting employer to disappear with his wages. Seemingly, the practice of wage cheating by unscrupulous contractors is widespread because there are no employment contracts.
Reporting abuse to law-enforcement agencies is nearly impossible owing to the absence of contracts and because attending court cases is not only unaffordable but also time wasted in finding a day’s work. Jobseekers are now wary of construction contractors, and some prefer to be hired only by private households and refuse to hand over copies of their identity documents.
Gazing through the “framework agreement” of the job-creation strategy signed at the jobs summit, a question arises about how it would help a roadside jobseeker in Midrand and many other unemployed South Africans under similar circumstances: too old, unskilled, vulnerable, ineligible for current labour market policies and with limited social networks. The framework agreement proposals cover just about everything under the sun, excuse the sarcasm, ranging from procurement interventions, growing exports, pledging R100-billion to support black-owned enterprises to stimulating agriculture, improving education and skills, and fixing water leaks. Most of the proposals are not new and one wonders how their reincarnation would make any difference without addressing the underlying weaknesses and the fundamental systemic governance and administrative challenges.
There is an overwhelming perception that the lingering unemployment situation is a function of weak economic growth or low labour absorption capacity, yet overlooking deep-seated structural impediments such as exploitation, systematic exclusions, lack of skills, high cost structures and imperfect market conditions. Unfortunately, these barriers cannot be resolved with piecemeal and ephemeral initiatives such as job summits and youth employment programmes, but only with a concerted commitment to bold reforms, quality planning and execution.
What then is to be done about roadside jobseekers in the near future, while elusive structural reforms unfold? The immediate to medium-term solution is to reduce the number of people who enter the labour market without schooling and skills, the so-called not in education, employment and training. This can take the form of identifying and tracking learners at the risk of dropping out of school and offering them the necessary support. It is also important to make market-relevant vocational training programmes available to those who have finished schooling.
Some of the most developed economies such as Germany thrive on vocational occupations, with more than 50% of school leavers undergoing vocational training offered in a partnership between the government and small and medium-sized businesses. South Africa can convert unused government facilities into trade schools, targeting early school leavers.
Programmes such as yes4youth and unemployment tax credits should be earmarked for small and medium-sized companies that provide apprenticeships in selected vocations. Further, the various sector education and training authorities should formalise the skills of experienced adult jobseekers outside the formal working environment.
Lastly, regulations should be enforced and monitored to minimise exploitation. Otherwise, Makola and his fellow jobseekers may just have to wait until they get their only regular income-earning opportunity from the social largesse.
Eddie Rakabe is a writer, researcher and development economist. These are his own views