Jobs summit: just another talk-shop?
The government, business and labour will convene for a two-day summit this week to focus on SA’s unemployment crisis. But it’s unclear if the meeting will bear any practical fruit
There is widespread cynicism about how much the presidential jobs summit this week will help SA’s unemployment crisis. The meeting on Thursday and Friday will bring together business, labour and the government to discuss "collaborative and high-impact interventions to drive job creation, job retention and economic growth", seeking a way out of poverty for the 9.6-million South Africans who are unemployed.
Understandably, analysts and economists have adopted a wait-and-see approach, questioning the timing of the summit and asking what previous gatherings of the kind have achieved.
The summit has been a long time in the making. It was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his maiden state of the nation address in February, but trade union federation Cosatu has been calling for such a gathering since former president Jacob Zuma took office in 2009. It now comes just a few months before next year’s elections, when the ANC will need Cosatu’s support to clinch victory.
Labour consultant Tony Healy says the politics around the elections will weigh heavily on the summit and could militate against the necessary decisions being made.
These, he says, include radical reform of the regulatory environment for business, including a review of labour regulations to make it easier for more people to be absorbed into the labour market by existing businesses.
"A lot of the changes that need to be made will be politically unpopular," says Healy. "General regulation is becoming more complex; access to capital is becoming more difficult; the government itself is overinflated as an employer, which is a problem … The timing couldn’t be worse for this summit in terms of decisions that have to be made."
Ann Bernstein, executive director of the Centre for Development & Enterprise, says the unemployment crisis requires bold action, not just projects. She says the summit will be a "wasted opportunity" if it does not deal with the key structural constraints on employment, including rigid labour laws.
"Too much energy goes into projects that can help move people closer to the front of the unemployment queue, and too little goes into the policy reforms that are needed to shrink those queues," says Bernstein. "We need to change the approach to collective bargaining so that workseekers and smaller firms are not priced out of the market; reduce the cost of employing young people, especially in comparison with older, more experienced workers; and reduce subsidies being paid to firms that are capital-and skill-intensive."
But delegates to the summit may be squaring up for a stalemate. Cosatu and other labour federations have already declared they won’t entertain talk of legislative reform.
Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla says: "We are going to reject that the environment must be deregulated. It will never work in SA. What that does is allow employers to fire South Africans and replace them with foreign nationals because you allow them to be flexible with decisions pertaining to pay and other conditions."
The federation will make its submission to the summit along with the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions, which are also part of the National Economic Development & Labour Council (Nedlac). The three federations agree that solving the unemployment crisis requires, among other things, a greater focus on rural and township economies, particularly the creation of labour-intensive industries in these areas.
Fedusa general secretary Dennis George says: "The rural areas are very important and also the township economy, because that is where the people are. How do we support the township businesses? You know how the foreigners came in and took over? The same thing is happening in agriculture in rural areas. We need to address these problems."
George, who sits on the presidential summit committee comprising government, labour, business and community leaders, says the committee is working on proposals that deal with sector-specific interventions, SME support, education and skills, inclusive growth, transformation and inequality, among other things.
The proposals arise from the work of five working committees, but Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, the National Education, Health & Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), has accused the government and business of not being committed to the process.
Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha says the working groups have made little progress due to "lack of consensus and commitment on the most far-reaching issues that have potential to deliver on decent jobs".
He says big business is "refusing" to invest and create jobs in strategic sectors of the economy, while the government is planning to retrench about 30,000 workers in the public service.
"[The government] is not prepared to fill critical vacant posts, there is no attempt to deal with austerity measures and cutbacks that are weakening the public service," he says. "The quest to build a capable developmental state has been relegated to the back burner."