Lies, damned lies & statistics

Posted on July 1, 2018


First published in City Press, Sunday, July 1

Every year, on a regular basis, that old saying: There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics comes to mind. This in when Stats SA releases either the official Quarterly Employment Statistics (QES) or the Labour Force Survey (QLFS).

The work in these studies is usually impeccable and the results reliable. But then comes the interpretation, often influenced by politics and all too frequently spiced with wishful thinking.

This past week was no different. With the focus, admittedly encouraged by a Stats SA media release, that the country had added 56 000 jobs in the first quarter. It resulted in one commentator remarking that this rosy picture should “put a smile on the face of President Cyril Ramaphosa”.

It is, of course, true that the QES for the first quarter of this year does reveal the addition of 56 000 jobs. But it is a far cry from the full picture.

Being the QES and not the QLFS, statistics relating to that essential productive sector, agriculture, are not included. The QES survey covers only formal, non-agricultural employment.

However, the QLFS released in May this year, showed a loss of 3,000 jobs in the farming sector in the first quarter of the year. Given the extent of the recent — in some regions ongoing — drought, the longer term effects on farm labour may be serious, but we will have to wait for the second quarter QLFS to find out.

What is most worrying about the QES figures is the fact that most of the registered — and relatively minor — jobs growth was not in the productive sectors. It came from “community services” where a “surge” of 67 000 jobs was reported. For the most part, these are jobs created by municipalities and may be — often are — temporary and very low paid.

The annual overview also provided by the survey is certainly not rosy, despite the fact that year-on-year employment increased by 74,000. But, once again, this was mainly in the community services sector. Construction, mining, manufacturing and transport all recorded job losses over the year from March to March.

This increase in jobs was also outstripped by a conservatively estimated population growth of 150,000. What this all boils down to is that, officially, unemployment remains at 26.7%. And, perhaps most worrying is the fact of the more than 10 million citizens aged between 15 and 24, more than 3 million — roughly one in every three young workers — are not in work, education or training.

It is also becoming clear that austerity is stating to bite, not only with calls for lower wage demands, but also from the fact that average gross wages have started to decline. However, at least our social security — such as it is — remains intact and, for all its problems, a national health scheme of some kind is being pursued.

But calls to tighten belts and to “pull together” for a promised better future at a time of ongoing economic crisis is a global reality, although, in the United States, this tends to be hidden behind what the US labour movement says are simple lies. President Donald Trump continues to maintain that a “better future” has begun, yet last week his administration put forward proposals to cut paltry US medical and social services that now exist in order to “save the country” more than $2tr (R27 trillion) over the next decade.

This distortion was shown up by the unions after critically analysing the available data. It is a lesson to bear in mind whenever statistics are presented — and especially when politicians make confident comments about them.