It seems the politics of organised labour – Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) in particular – are focused on the potential effects of the restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), especially Eskom and South African Airways (SAA).
However, there is a notable yet ignored crisis – the young future workers who cannot find jobs. There is no denying the changing nature of the labour market due to technology, globalisation and shifts in the world economy.
I singled out Cosatu because it is the biggest workers’ federation in the country, but in truth my suggestion is to all organisations within South Africa’s organised labour sphere, especially since it seems they have barred themselves in a cul de sac.
They are preoccupied with topical long-standing national issues that constrict their focus and block them from seeing (a) the urgency of designing trade unions strategies that will lend relevance to their existence in a future economy that is continuously being altered by technology; and (b) the plunge in the labour force participation rate of young South Africans who are of working age in the past year.
I highlight youth without work as an issue because although a good deal of the discussion about unemployment acknowledges the crisis faced by the young (whether without education or graduates), the consequences of high youth unemployment are often overlooked.
Three crucial indicators that move together
This is the case despite the devastating and lasting effects these consequences are likely to have on three crucial economic health indicators that move together – income, output and work.
In the past 10 years, the three have been characterised by disorder.
First, based on Statistics SA household income indicators, the growth in income inequality between different LSM groups has widened further. Furthermore, the labour participation rate in the 40-65 age group has risen along with their income, while younger workers struggle to get a foothold in the workplace – and, when they do, earn less.
Second, the country’s productivity continues to decline for a number of reasons, including the lack of private investment, various instances of policy uncertainty and, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a rigid labour market. In short, potentially, more people would be employed if the national working rate was high and driven by young workers.
Third, the demand side factor of the labour market is characterised by companies that are fitting into what is determined by international trade, global markets and the use of labour, which is dominated by outsourcing and/or temporary work. For South Africa this has created an incongruency, with older, experienced workers being hired more than young graduates. In turn, this reduces the labour force participation rate of young workers, including low-skilled workers, causing work or job opportunities to disappear for the young working-age group.
Fourth, restricted youth labour mobility has powerful implications for the future labour market and societal challenges such as poverty reduction. The impact of technology means jobs and workers are going to be displaced, making it near impossible for those who have never worked to find jobs.
Furthermore, the anomaly of the higher older-worker participation rate in an increasingly young country could trigger urban if not nationwide problems that undermine social cohesion.
Consider, for example, how long-term unemployment and lack of opportunities can incentivise young people to resort to criminal activities as a way of generating income.
Moreover, areas that experience high levels of unemployment are likely to see an increase in poverty and dependency on social grants.
Finally, and this is where organised labour comes in as they reinvent their core function in an age where the future of work is uncertain: unions must first make a case that compels government to have social policies that adjust to the changes and developments in the global economy.
For example, regulation must adapt to technological change through policies that encourage the private sector to invest in cities that have historically driven economic growth.
Unions need to broaden their own mandate
In an age of increasing accountability thanks to the social media culture of seeking answers and calling out wrongs, to remain relevant, unions must subject government to checks and balances and work towards the common benefit of society and not just their members.
In working towards transformative change for workers, unions must view the problems experienced by workers as related to those that affect society, not separate from them.
Income, for example, has a direct influence on household spending and this in turn establishes where a household is located on the national poverty line – workplace issues therefore typically move together with social issues.
Unless Cosatu and other workers’ movements redefine their path, chart a new path of their own away from the bounds of alliances, their approach to the kind of workers they represent will remain narrow and fail to speak for the youth without work.
However, the task cannot fall to unions alone. Business and government, what are you doing?
It is indefensible that the most obvious crisis – the ‘youth without work’ crisis – will carry on into the new decade.