To be, or not to be ... exploited – that is the question

Shakespeare’s famous passage speaks to us over the centuries: To be, or not to be – that is the question; Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer, The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?

What should jobless people do? Passively suffer the ‘outrageous fortune’ of unemployment? Or confront their ‘sea of troubles’ by finding a job, any job, even if others may consider the circumstances or wages to constitute exploitation? The truth is, they can’t avoid passively suffering because employers dare not, for fear of prosecution, enter into contracts with employees that don’t conform in every respect with the labour laws. Instead the jobless are confronted with ‘NO JOB’ signs.

The dictionary definition of ‘exploitation’ is to ‘utilise a situation or person for one’s own ends’. There are just not enough prospective employers wishing to exploit the labour of SA’s jobless for their own ends. If there were, there would be no unemployment and job seekers would be able to pick and choose between jobs. Wages would be driven steadily higher as employers compete with each other for the available labour. And job seekers would be in a position to exploit employers for their own ends.

Unemployed people believe that employers are hard-hearted; that there must be some job they could be given, allowing them to earn a few rands every month instead of nothing. The national committee of the Young Communist League (YCL) said at their October 2005 meeting, ‘We will work with the Right to Work Campaign, the Save Jobs Coalition, the Basic Income Grant Coalition and other local initiatives to build support for the right of young people to decent work’. The YCL blames government policies and private firms: ‘All these are outcomes of government policy failure and protection of private sector interests to accumulate profits. Business continues to do as it pleases. The private sector still does not invest enough money in job-creation and youth development’. If they placed a different interpretation on the words ‘right to work’ – if they interpreted them to mean the right of a job seeker to decide on her or his own destiny – then progress would be made. Unfortunately, their interpretation is that someone, somewhere, must be forced to give people jobs.

That there are no jobs available for at least 26.7 per cent of the population, or 38.8 per cent if you count those who have stopped looking for jobs, is the result of the current mandated minimum wages and statutory requirements. We have to realise that under different conditions there would be full employment. Profit-seeking entrepreneurs will employ all available workers as long as the product of their labour exceeds the cost of employing them. Mass unemployment tells us that the aggregate cost of wages and compliance with labour laws makes the employment of large numbers of people uneconomic – they are priced out of the labour market.

The YCL called for the ‘right to work for all’ – an objective with which everyone will be in total agreement. However, everyone will not agree with the method by which they wish their objective to be achieved. They are poignantly correct when they say: ‘Without work and income, there is no realistic and meaningful chance for any young person to develop, grow and contribute to our country’s development’. The large-scale youth unemployment is a national tragedy and must be addressed with the greatest urgency.

However, when the organisation says, ‘Without the right to decent work being included in the constitution and achieved in reality, the promise of the constitution becomes meaningless for many young people’, they fall into the common trap of believing that any economic problem can be solved by a positive stroke of the statutory pen. Instead of appealing for greater statutory compulsion or prohibition to be inflicted on employers, they should be calling for the repeal of the statutes and regulations that are the underlying cause of the unemployment.

If everyone did have the right to work, on their own terms, agreed between them and their employers without the intervention of government, it is highly probable that some people would take jobs that others may not consider to be ‘decent’. However, that should be the right of the job seekers and their right alone. The ‘right to work’ must mean that job seekers have the sole right to determine what jobs are acceptable to them otherwise the phrase becomes meaningless. Placing the decision-making squarely in the hands of the job seeker is the only way to solve the current youth unemployment crisis.

Given the large-scale unemployment in the country, it would make sense for enterprising young people to work for meagre wages in order to gain experience. Skills acquisition, especially on the job, provides the greatest opportunities for income acceleration. Unfortunately the law does not allow young people to ‘buy’ skills with salary sacrifices. It does not allow young people to be ‘exploited’ by the people who can teach them the skills they want. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel told an audience in Cape Town at the end of last year that 52 per cent of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were unemployed. The labour law prohibition against informal low wage ‘apprenticeship’ arrangements is a major reason for that high youth unemployment rate.

Labour minister Membathisi Mdladlana told a meeting of the Bureau of the African Union Labour and Social Affairs Commission in Addis Ababa in September 2005 that youth unemployment was a powder keg waiting to explode throughout the continent unless something drastic was done to address it. ‘I have noted lots of protests in Africa, including South Africa from youths and this is an indication that something is not right. The youth is clearly becoming restless and creative ways should be found to keep them employed,’ he said.

If the minister wishes to bring about a meaningful and rapid reduction in unemployment, including youth unemployment, government has to remove the major causes. One of the greatest deterrents to employment is the cost of complying with the labour laws, which falls very heavily on small firms, who employ most young, old, unskilled and otherwise disadvantaged people. These costs have to be reduced. Government must increase the demand for labour; increase the number of employers wishing to ‘exploit’ the labour of the unemployed.

To be, or not to be exploited – that is the question. It is a burning, explosive, question as minister Mdladlana revealed in Addis Ababa.

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/25 July 2006 - Policy Bulletin / 06 October 2009

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