Emotive terms like ‘exploitation’ confuse the real debate

I have done all sorts of jobs in my life. While still at primary school, I worked with my brother in our grandmother’s grocery shop where she instilled a work ethic in the two of us. When I was a teenager, I worked in a bakery and, later, did manual work in the construction industry. Name any type of job and the chances are I have done it. I have worked under all sorts of conditions. Given all those experiences, I can assertively state that very few things are as gratifying to the soul as bringing hard-earned money into the home.

Yet, in the name of ‘decent pay for decent work’, organised labour is intent on denying millions of people the chance to experience such a sensation and fulfil such a human need by persistently calling for minimum wages and other forms of labour market regulation which will only further restrict the creation of new jobs and gradually destroy some of those that already exist.

The underlying sentiment is that no one should suffer exploitation by employers. But the perception of exploitation can be relative. The immigrant from another country may regard a wage that the South African labour unions reject, not as exploitative, but rather as an improvement on his current socio-economic circumstances. For an unemployed person, exploitation is a better option than starvation or the loss of dignity that comes with unemployment. You might say that what is worse than exploitation is not being exploited at all.

Emotive terms like ‘exploitation’ confuse the real debate and encourage the enactment of policies that are not grounded in reality. This book forces us to focus on the real debate: how is the unemployment crisis to be resolved?

What is exploitation? Virtually all small and informal businesses start out with the owner taking significant risk and, for a considerable period, drawing little if any personal income. This could be called self-exploitation – the utilisation of personal manual or intellectual capital with little immediate reward. And it is precisely this form of ‘exploitation’ which invariably results in the creation of new jobs and new wealth. This is the genesis of job-creation. Most big businesses throughout the world started out as small or even informal businesses. If this logic of so-called self-exploitation were to be extended to our labour market, South Africa’s cataclysmic unemployment rate would become history in no time, so the authors of this book argue.

AUTHOR Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article, which is an excerpt from the Preface to the book Jobs Jobs Jobs published by the FMF, may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 31 January 2012

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