Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Unemployment: Back to basics.

Are we becoming increasingly detached from the plight of the unemployed?

Every quarter the statistics confront us. Every quarter they are met either with some comfort or concern. For a brief while, they linger in the headlines, capture some sound bites of ivory tower pontificating and then get reconciled with the “grand plans”, the NDP, government action, and company and labour cooperation and involvement.

Until the next set of statistics are revealed. Like the latest QLS figures which reflect a 100 000 loss of jobs in the first three months of this year, bringing the official unemployment rate back to above 25%. If you add those that have given up looking for work, then it is estimated that 4 out of every ten economically active South Africans are without jobs. They have to face a life of hopelessness under the double edged sword of no means and no meaning, of which the latter is the real sharp edge of the blade.

Tragically, most of them are youth who have little else left than political expression and street protests, a far more serious threat to our preciously held economic theories than socialist-capitalist debates in hallowed venues such as boardrooms, conference halls and media columns.

We have to isolate unemployment as our biggest problem, and not divert our attention to other problems related to it, such as poverty, inequality, crime, labour unrest, wage demands, race and class polarisation, service delivery, the Guptas and even education. Most of our problems will be substantially ameliorated by fuller employment. Of course, effective education and skills training will make more people employable, but for many destitute families even free and dysfunctional education is not free.

Some months ago, I wrote about the need for declaring a state of emergency around unemployment. It is worth repeating. The populist call for “economic freedom” may have died down with the demise of Julius Malema, and it has been thoroughly discredited in the minds of many because it has been presented and largely understood as an expansion of hand-outs and dependency in a growing and bloated parasitic state. Yet, convert the intention or understanding of economic freedom from means to meaning, from money to opportunity, and it becomes a very valid ideal.

Only hard line communists and radical socialists would argue that equality can mean anything else but equal opportunity. As such, it is the valued and inseparable companion of liberty and justice, the other main pillars of free and functional societies.

South Africa’s unemployment problem deserves the same urgency as political transformation did in the early 1990’s. It needs the same spirit of compromise and sacrifice that led to political freedom for all. Yet we seem to dither, locked in incessant debate in which the loud wailing of vested interests, collectives, institutions, politicians, power mongers, labour leaders, company executives and others, drown out the murmurings of despairing millions.

Our inertia regarding the unemployment problem must be at least partly due to a lack of real and tangible concern by society as a whole. It is simply seen to be “someone else’s problem” – that “someone else” being government, Trade Unions, or big business. But it is a discussion that should feature in households, at every company board meeting and on the agenda of any collective from any walk of life. Until each one of us can say that we have more than a casual interest in the problem, we cannot be exonerated from the eventual outcomes.

I came to this thought after a discussion with my landlord and farm manager, Adrian Sutton, who has become passionate about trying to uplift the local community. Within the first few minutes we became despondent and overwhelmed by obstacles, yet not totally convinced that nothing could be done. In short, a seed has been securely planted for the establishment of a communal farming venture based on many experiences elsewhere – including rooftop growers in Johannesburg.

Agriculture must certainly offer the greatest opportunity for employment and sustenance. If we can move our attention away from grand plans of land transformation and ownership to communal and co-operative farming, we could make valuable contributions to both food security and employment. Much is already being done. We simply have to build on it.

When one hits an immovable obstacle in any challenge, one simply has to go back to the basics and strip the problem of all of its esoteric niceties and ideological posturing. Unemployment is such a problem.

In creating tangible value and productive employment, sound economies have to ensure freedom of choice, free moving prices, and maximum number of competitive suppliers.

Out of the box, perhaps even outrageous considerations for the three economic estates are:

· Government must be less obsessed with creating jobs and more focussed on creating the conditions for others to create jobs. In most cases, this will mean simply getting out of the way of private initiative, especially small and medium enterprises where, as Ryk van Niekerk wrote recently, it will need to revisit its draconian legislation that is discouraging mom-and-pop ventures.

· Organised labour has to come to terms with the need for less rigid labour legislation, the fact that developing and employing a large unskilled labour pool may require sacrificing developed country employment standards, and forfeit adversarial wage negotiations for flexible pay linked to wealth creation and greater job retention.

· Companies have to let go of their obsession with maximising shareholder value, which is more of a feature in the Anglo Saxon business model than elsewhere including Asia. The advantage to them is sustainability and a lower risk price for capital. Customer and market growth, as well as job creation and retention should be important criteria in executive remuneration.

Of course, there will still be dark clouds on the horizon, such as world economic conditions, slack demand and an unstable monetary system. We are simply too vulnerable to them – a vulnerability caused by structural and behavioural inflexibility.

The above suggestions will no doubt solicit a litany of comments from various ideological standpoints, and I concede that they all need fuller argument. But in the end, humanity’s greatest attribute for survival is caring for each other. This is not a soft, bleeding heart quality. The purpose of care is the enablement and empowerment of the receiver, not the creation of a lifelong dependency on the state or others.

Of course the final litmus test is willingness on the part of those being uplifted. That in turn will rely on three factors that are the crux of any employment relationship – involvement, engagement and incentive.

Of the three the first two are the most important.

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