Separating jobs from access to basic services

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Post-apartheid South Africa is falling apart. Inequality has corroded democracy, reinforced social division and fostered a climate conducive to conflict. An incompetent state helps our economy trickle down and the resulting poverty means despair for millions. This dysfunction is aggravated and preserved by what seems to be an insurmountable crisis: mass unemployment.

A rare consensus has emerged: unemployment is a central obstacle to the well-being of citizens and the stability of society. Each political party positions unemployment as an antagonist that its policies will overcome. Successive ANC leaders have lamented the devastation caused by unemployment, and every president since Thabo Mbeki has detailed policy measures as well as immense resources that promise to reduce the crisis, with little or no success.

It seems that an abundance of hope is invested in job creation as a pathway to individual financial security and as a valuable key to our economic renaissance. Every year, we measure our progress, our failures and our potential through the prism of unemployment.

Social movements were propelled by the desire for employment. #FeesMustFall sought to decommodify education, hoping that ambitious, skilled young black people would be better equipped to compete in the marketplace, with their budding careers relieved of student debt.

Our moral leaders expect job creation to unlock benefits beyond the material realm. Jobs are expected to cause moral renewal, occupy our idle hands, and leave no time for anti-social behavior. Habitual hedonism will find no host in the lives of young people. For some, the job hunt is a moral crusade aimed at building virtue and granting dignity through decent work.

We are all afraid of the future and the present can seem unbearable, especially for the perpetually unemployed and the poor. But fear and the need for stability can distort our capacity for rational judgment. Work, although vital for material and spiritual well-being, is never a neutral, amoral or apolitical form of human activity.

Where one works, the working conditions, the jobs available, the moral and financial hierarchy in which the work fits and where the wealth produced is invested (or hoarded), result from self-serving political choices. If we don’t criticize this, we may be seduced by the myth that jobs themselves will trigger prosperity in the nation and in our lives.

The vast majority of the US labor force is employed (157 million people) and the unemployment rate in February 2022 stands at 3.8%, with 6.3 million citizens unemployed.

Despite the high employment numbers, a not-so-surprising revelation is that a significant portion of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs. Across the United States, blue-collar and white-collar workers are quitting their jobs in a phenomenon known as the Great Quit.

There are those who quit in search of better pay and benefits, tired of being treated like cattle that don’t deserve financial security, valued only insofar as they can be exploited. Others quit for mental health reasons, sickened by stifling work environments and occasional abuse from bosses, who demand tireless dedication and self-sacrifice but rarely reward it.

This discontent is also expressed in strikes led by unions across the United States. In the aftermath of the pandemic, American workers — in health care, hospitality, manufacturing, mining and theater — began to reawaken an activist spirit that some thought was forever consigned to history.

This great resignation is not exclusive to the United States. A growing portion of South African professionals are refusing to be overworked and underpaid, choosing to realign their priorities and quit their jobs.

I imagine that some readers regard strikes and resignations as signs of ingratitude. Our political discourse has rarely paid attention to the reality of being employed outside the professional class. Instead, commentators label almost all efforts by workers to organize as disruptive.

Worse still, when workers demand better wages, their white-collar counterparts, political analysts and politicians will dismiss their demands as impractical and unfair to employers, who are often revered in the public imagination for simply creating jobs.

This reverence and objectification of blue collar workers as instruments to serve the wealthy, achieve economic growth and attract investment will perpetuate misery and deepen inequality. It often escapes our notice that the fundamental interests of major employers are in direct conflict with the interests of workers and contrary to the positive development of society as a whole.

The main objective of companies is to defeat the competition and reduce production costs to remain profitable. Workers are integral to the process of profit creation, coerced into jobs because the means to produce wealth exist in private hands and the necessities of life are commodified.

Such coercion is a restriction of its agency because freedom should involve the ability to say “no” to certain forms of activity without regard to survival. Employers and employees do not meet as equals, rather it is a relationship in which people’s dependence on the market and wages is exploited.

In exchange for a job, you can get a salary and, in some cases, health care, paid holidays and life insurance. They are mainly workers, white or blue collar, who want to ensure their well-being and use their salary for their own education, the health of their children, enjoy their leisure time or save for a comfortable retirement.

Employers are unable to amass wealth without the intense and complex web of labor that generates products and provides services. Nonetheless, employers will limit benefits, cut wages and, as seen in recent years, lay off employees to cut costs and maintain profits.

It is not an unfortunate reality of doing business, it is the owners of capital who realize their interests regardless of the human cost. It is also an attack on employee well-being, as it hampers their ability to strengthen their basic well-being and advance their higher ambitions in life.

Billionaire Warren Buffet once said, “There’s a class war going on, okay, but it’s my class, the wealthy class, that’s making the war, and we’re winning. His transparency was shocking but the class war he describes is happening here all the time if you pay attention to it.

South Africa’s agricultural industry is hailed as a ‘star’ economy. In fiscal 2020, its total export revenue was $10.2 billion. And yet, nine out of ten agricultural workers do not earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty.

In our most profitable and labor-intensive industries, such as mining, manufacturing, and transportation, wage earners live in poverty. In domestic service, 95% earn less than R4,125 per month. While retailers rejoice in the exponential increase in income, a large percentage of supermarket workers earn around minimum wage.

When workers resist, they are threatened with unemployment, discouraged from unionizing and face violent repression if they mobilize against their employers.

In Marikana, miners were shot for trying to resist an asymmetric war waged by Lonmin shareholders. The ongoing dispute between Clover and its workers over layoffs and pay cuts is beginning to resemble the tensions that ended in tragedy in Marikana.

As long as employers have incredible leverage – offering jobs in the face of job shortages, having access to legal resources, sympathetic ears in the media, and influence in shaping government policy – such conflict will continue. If employment remains the main means by which people have access to basic needs or services, and if we continue to organize the economy around the incentive to profit, the chaos that we witnessed during the riots in July will become an essential part of public life.

Jobs are essential to our economic recovery and social stability. This is not a utopian argument about a post-work society. But job creation in itself cannot be the horizon of our ambitions. The work should not impair your dignity, exhaust your free will or threaten your material security.

To reduce poverty and inequality, workers must be empowered to organize and bargain collectively. Unions can be imperfect organizations, but if workers cannot come together to protect their common interests, they are more vulnerable to exploitation.

More than that, workers must have a meaningful share of the wealth they produce, not only enjoying the fruits of their labor but participating in the direction of production. Perhaps most critical in the immediate future, government must recognize that the private sector will not bring salvation.

Beyond foreign direct investment and job creation, the state must use its capabilities to develop citizens. This means making food security, public health, security, housing and education the predominant concerns of governance. Without such interventions, South Africa will remain an unsustainable society.

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