Mr President, please give gift certificates to the unemployed this Christmas

Mr President, I am asking you on behalf of the unemployed for a bold and noble act – a gift certificate from you to the unemployed that will make it easier for them to get jobs.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey (Sept 2006) 25.5 per cent of SA’s potential labour force, numbering 4,391,000 people, are unemployed. Then there are a further 3,217,000 ‘discouraged work seekers’ who are left out of the unemployment figures because they have given up looking for work. The total is a shocking 7,618,000 people who could be working but are not.

Almost half the people in the official unemployment figures (50.2 per cent) are between the ages 15 to 24 years. And unemployment is worse in some areas such as Polokwane where 88 per cent of young women are unemployed.

But you have already seen the statistics, Mr Mbeki; I repeat them merely so that they are readily available to you when you reflect on my plea. You have seen the statistics but you have clearly not been presented with a viable solution to this human tragedy that is eating like a cancer at the fabric of our society.

Recently when Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana was in Beijing, he discussed the unemployment issue with the Chinese politicians and officials. He told them that SA’s answer to the problem was “training, retraining, internships, skills levies and apprenticeships”. But training, in itself, will not solve our massive unemployment problem.

A young unemployed man phoned me from a training course in Bloemfontein and said, ‘I have been on courses before and they did not help me get a job and I know this one is not going to help either. When they see us, they want to train us. I don’t want to be trained again! I just want a job! I will work for nothing if someone will just give me a start.’ He phoned because he had heard me speaking on the radio about providing exemption certificates to the unemployed that would allow them to enter into agreements with employers on any conditions they find acceptable. Really, all it means is giving contractual rights back to the unemployed for a fixed period so that they can get their feet on the first rungs of the employment ladder.

The desperate young man wanted me to organise a certificate for him. I had to explain to him that it was not for me to give. Mr Mbeki, a certificate like this is for you and your government to give.

Will it make a difference, Mr Mbeki, if the young man from Bloemfontein can walk into the office of an employer and say, ‘Listen, you don’t have to worry about the CCMA, or the Labour Court, or the minimum wage laws, or any of the other laws you are so terrified of, here is my certificate from the President, you are safe, it is just you and me. Let’s talk?’ I know it will make a difference. He will get a job, which will give him back his pride and put bread on his table.

Will some employers exploit the situation and offer what are called ‘slave wages’ to the unemployed? I am sure they will in the beginning, but not for long. As soon as the workers have gained job skills and experience they will be offered better jobs for better pay. The situation might initially appear chaotic, disorderly, and exploitative, but at the same time wonderful things will be happening.

In Hong Kong there was large-scale unemployment when the boat people fled there from mainland China and later from Vietnam. The refugees were destitute but they had an advantage that the SA unemployed do not have; there were no barriers to entry into the job market such as unjustifiable dismissal or minimum wage laws. After a few labour surplus years, employers once again started complaining about the shortage of labour. Removing the barriers on a selective basis, limited to the unemployed, will allow the same labour absorption process to occur in SA.

Certificate holders will have hope, instead of being filled with despair. Entry into the job market will no longer appear to be guarded by an impenetrable brick wall, reserved for the privileged 12,800,000. Prescribed conditions of employment will be converted into conditions created for themselves by the unemployed; decision-making will be entirely in their hands. Certificate holders will be empowered to go out and cut deals with prospective employers and very soon the employers will come searching for them. The current logjam will be broken.

No one will be compelled to apply for a certificate and if it does not work for those who do, they can tear it up. Research shows that SA’s young people who have jobs, are inclined to cling to them. Their insecurity is understandable, given conditions in the labour market. Certificate holders would be less insecure and have a greater level of mobility, as they would present a lower risk to employers.

I am asking you to give the unemployed a break without touching the job security of those who already have jobs. A certificate like the one that is described in the book Jobs for the Jobless: Special Exemption Certificates for the Unemployed will protect the holder under the common law rather than under the various labour laws. It will not affect the rights of the employed. New jobs will be created for the new category of employee.

Mr President, if you arranged for 7,618,000 gift exemption certificates to be handed out to the unemployed this Christmas and into the New Year, about half the families in this country would be extremely grateful to you. And the benefits in the form of higher growth, less crime, fewer people on welfare, and less potential civil strife will be so great that the other half who do not have unemployed relatives will also be cheering for you, as we all were when the rugby boys hoisted you onto their shoulders at the World Cup.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of 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.

FMF Feature Article/ 27 November 2007

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