Feature Article: Work reservation is not in the public interest

The Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform on 8 November 2013 published for comment Draft Regulations for the Planning Profession Act (Act No. 36 of 2002), which, if approved, will reserve certain categories of work exclusively for registered professional and technical town and regional planners. Even lawyers and land surveyors who, up to now, have undertaken components of the work to be reserved for planners would need to apply for a Certificate of Approval from the South African Council for Planners to continue to do so.

Considering the more than 8 million unemployed in the country, the question arises whether South Africa can afford the luxury of reserving work exclusively for the planning profession, or for any other profession or trade. The answer is no: work reservation and occupational licensing laws reduce employment and raise costs to the consumers, leaving a selected group better off at the expense of the rest of society. Consumers are best served when there are no barriers to entry into the provision of goods and services, allowing them a choice between the offerings of freely competing providers.

Arguments supporting work reservation are advanced on the basis that work reservation protects the public from unqualified and incompetent persons. Lobbying for work reservation, however, rarely, if ever, comes from the public but from those who already work in the particular profession. Consumers offer little resistance as they are led to believe that checks will be put in place to protect them from incompetency and fraudsters and will benefit them by ensuring higher standards of service.

The real aim of work reservation laws is to enhance the standing of a profession and to limit competition from those who, while they may not meet the prescribed standards of qualifications and experience, nevertheless are capable of doing at least some components of the work to be reserved for the favoured profession. The downside is increased costs for consumers as they are compelled by law to make use of the services of the protected profession as lower priced services offered by those who do not meet qualification requirements are no longer available on the market.

By reserving work exclusively for planning professionals, the Regulations will enable them to increase prices, raising the cost of applications for consent uses, rezoning, township establishment and the like, ultimately increasing the cost of urban development. The increased cost resulting from work reservation is not directly visible to consumers as it is hidden in the price of professional services. What is also reprehensible is that it impacts disproportionally on the poor who will be confronted with higher prices for land and housing.

The Regulations, if approved, will make it illegal for property owners, draughtsmen, architects and others who, up to now, have been free to do so, to prepare and lodge planning applications themselves or on behalf of clients. Geographers, sociologists, economists and others employed as ‘planners’ in state, provincial and local government service and in the private sector, will no longer be able to do work in planning positions.

Similar to all professions, the range of skills and competencies of professional and technical planners is considerable and as many of us can attest, a formal qualification in medicine, law, engineering, economics, psychology, and the like, offers no guarantee of competency. Work reservation laws give professions an aura of respectability not necessarily commensurate with their actual level of competency. Their effect is to protect incompetence and outdated ways of doing things, to entrench "accepted methods of practice", and, instead of promoting higher levels of competency, innovation and progress, to act as barriers to progress.

Throughout history, many of the great advances in all fields came from "outsiders" who had no standing in a profession – the very people work reservation seeks to eliminate. If work reservation applied to the computer industry, the world would have been deprived of the immense contributions made by university drop-outs Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs. Under today’s requirements for professional registration, Thomas Edison, who had little formal education, could not practice as an engineer and Frank Lloyd Wright would not have been able practice as an architect. In Colonial America, the leading opponents of inoculation as a cure for smallpox were doctors. Today, despite stringent qualification requirements, occupational licensing and work reservation for doctors, nurses and medical technicians, medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, casting doubt on the efficacy of work reservation.

Planners will point out that work has long been reserved for doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers. The answer to this is that the arguments against work reservation apply equally to these professions too. Taken to its logical conclusion, if work reservation delivers all of its alleged benefits, every single occupation in the country should be granted work reservation. The result will be an array of bureaucratic organisations and approval agencies tasked with matching qualifications with particular types of work, and, most likely, endless litigation on the qualifications appropriate to particular occupations, which persons should be permitted to do certain work. Add to this the problem of what the appropriate qualifications should be for those tasked with deciding what types of work to reserve for each occupation.

How are consumers to be protected from incompetent professionals? The answer is that the public is already protected against inadequate service delivery, fraud and misrepresentation through the legal and court system, not through work reservation. In addition, professionals who deliver substandard services or commit fraud are weeded out by public opinion. People use their judgement daily when they buy food, cars, houses, mobile phones, cameras and the millions of products and services available in the market place. Property owners and developers, and government departments are quite capable of deciding on the need to use the services of professional and technical planners, and to employ them if they wish to do so.

Professions concerned about standards of professional and ethical conduct and keen to improve their status and income are free to establish certification bodies that set requirements for membership. Other than that, the public is best served by truly competent individuals who do not require work to be reserved for them through legislation.

Author:  Johan Biermann is a professional planner and the author of Undermining Mineral Rights: An International Comparison, and South Africa’s Health Care under Threat, published by the Free Market Foundation. This article 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.


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