Statistical facts and reality

Posted on February 18, 2020


What have we come to when we celebrate, as some people did last week, the fact that the latest official quarterly unemployment statistics have remained unchanged — at 29.1%? Even when it is admitted that the “expanded definition” of unemployment, has edged up to 38.7%.

And this especially since the latest statistics refer to the fourth — festive season — quarter of last year. That is when, traditionally, more pat-time jobs are created.

But definitions such as “expanded” and “official”, along with percentages are enough to make heads spin. Time, I think, to recap on what all this means.

In the first place, to be regarded officially as unemployed, a person has to be “jobless, actively seeking work and available to take a job”. Nearly three in every ten men and women of working age in South Africa qualify: they want jobs, are actively looking for work and are available.

These are the women who trudge, every weekday, from suburban door to door and the men who line major urban roads hoping to be picked up as casual labour. Or they may be high school, technicon or university graduates, posting or filing on the internet, successions of applications and CVs.

No matter the level of work sought, no matter the qualifications of the seekers, “actively seeking work” can be a mind-numbing and depressing activity. And when the efforts of these people do not result in any paid labour for a week or more, they are added to the statistics as unemployed.

Small wonder then, that after months, or even years of fruitlessly seeking work or being in situations where there is obviously no work to be had, many people simply give up looking. Their numbers then make up the additional — and much less frequently quoted — “expanded” unemployment figure.

Added to the “official unemployment rate”, this figure makes up the “expanded definition” of unemployment. Since both groups comprise people who have no work, together they are a more accurate reflection of joblessness.

Yet even this expanded measure is far from accurate: it ignores the vast army of what has been termed the “hidden unemployed”. In some countries these people are referred to as the “under employed”, women and men who are paid for one hour or more of work a week.

What kind of work is done and how much is paid for it is regarded as irrelevant: do a job for as little as one hour, get paid for it, and you are officially deemed to have joined the ranks of the employed. And this is not a South African definition: it is the international standard, agreed to in 1982 by that international tripartite bureaucracy, the International Labour Organisation.

Significantly, the latest round of employment statistics noted that there was an increase in the numbers of workers employed in the services sector. Many of these would be people on temporary contracts, part of the so-called gig economy.

One of the largest of these groups is those women and men seen in many areas wearing EPWP bibs. They are workers employed under the Expanded Public Works Programme where the set minimum wage is R11 an hour.

Before even taking on the matter raised last week by public sector unions about some pay in the early childhood sector being as low as R6 an hour we should ask: what is a living wage? And should someone paid an inadequate — starvation — wage be classified as gainfully employed?

Anyone who fails to look to the reality behind the percentages reinforces the view that there are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics.