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Does a promise of jobs mean the same thing as a promise of work?

On World #SocialJusticeDay, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni gave his inaugural budget speech in which, among many good things, he promised jobs as part of the socio-economic inclusion bias of the budget.

The budget itself provided the financial backing to anchor the pathways to a just and equitable economy based on the shared prosperity that was promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) a few days earlier.

To improve the conditions of life for all, especially the poor, Mboweni promised R567 billion for social grant payments, improved human resource capacity and remuneration in the health services, and rearrangements on the financing of access to housing opportunities.

The M-Plan Social Justice Think Tank and I will be approaching the minister on partnering to assess the likely social justice impact of economic policies or decisions.

The issue I want to place on the agenda for now is the question of jobs versus work.

Specifically, is the promise of jobs the right promise legally and economically speaking?

I have no doubt about the sincerity and good intentions of both the SONA and the budget speech regarding the desire to usher in a socio-economically inclusive society.

Truth be told, every major political party is promising jobs, jobs and more jobs. Why does it matter whether we promise and deliver jobs? Is it not simply a matter of semantics? It is my considered view that it matters a lot whether we talk about jobs or work.

One of them falls among our international social justice and related human rights obligations which oblige our state to deliver.

Such international human rights obligations come from, among other things, our country’s adoption of international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and related International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions and Recommendations.

Let’s examine the semantics. Does a promise of jobs mean the same thing as a promise of work? I don’t think so.

A job means working for someone else while work means being able to be productively or economically occupied.

This can take the form of being a business owner, a self-employed person, an employee of someone else or a social entrepreneur. It seems to me that work is broader than a job.

If we agree that work is broader than jobs, we may have to agree that the unintended impact of promising jobs instead of work is a diminished promise. If so, the promise of jobs may fall short of our binding international and constitutional obligations.

For example, article 23 of the UDHR states that: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” The ILO goes further to promise decent work.

Our Constitution, on the other hand, doesn’t specifically promise jobs or work, thanks to a rejection of a proposal we made as the Wits Group during the early stages of the constitution-making process.

But our Constitution does, in section 22, say that: “Every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely.”

Courts have interpreted this to include protection of the right to economic activity. Furthermore, if we read section 22 together with section 10 entrenching the right to human dignity, and section 27 enshrining the right to access to health care services, sufficient food and water and social security, we can come up with the protection of the right or, at the very least, the freedom to work.

If there is any doubt in this regard, the last part of section 27(3) says that “if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, [they have the right to have access to] appropriate social assistance.”

This seems to expect that the default position is that people will have income or wealth to support their livelihoods and, if they are unable to do so, the state must help.

Beyond the legal question on the adequacy of lowering the promise to jobs instead of work is the economic question.

An economic framework that promises jobs can never achieve economic inclusion as envisaged in the National Development Plan, Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The fault lies in the failure to factor in the achievement of equality, which in our case is a value entrenched in section 1 of the Constitution.

Why does work fail in terms of economic restructuring in pursuit of equality? A promise of jobs assumes that the left-behind communities will be economically included through jobs.

To increase jobs you would have to invest in existing businesses and trust that their growth would yield jobs.

Existing businesses can never yield enough work for all who need it and, even if jobs are artificially created, as soon as such an arrangement threatens profit or becomes less attractive than automation and the conveniences of the fourth industrial revolution, such jobs will be shed.

Even if you were to legally compel existing business to make space for share ownership by historically excluded groups such as black people, women and people with disabilities, you would still not be able to bring enough of them to the level of ownership of existing businesses.

This has been the case with broad-based BEE.

During apartheid black people were expected to aspire towards jobs and nothing else.

Entrepreneurship excellence was suppressed with laws and policies to create and maintain cheap labour reservoirs.

The story of my father’s childhood place, Daggakraal, Mpumalanga, is a story of the state’s extraordinary measures to kill entrepreneurship where it abounded. It has been said time and again that you cannot solve the problems you have by doing the things you did to yield them.

Should our approach to economic inclusion focus on jobs if the outcome we want is an inclusive democracy and economy?

By focusing on jobs, aren’t we unintentionally locking in the socio-economic legacy of the past?

Aren’t we also unintentionally missing the opportunity to ensure that no one is trapped in the circumstances of their birth?

More important, is it possible that our policy pathways sabotage our ability to meet our international and constitutional social justice obligations regarding work and economic inclusion?

Madonsela is Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, and founder of the Social Justice M-Plan and the Thuma Foundation.


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By Prof Thuli Madonsela
Published 06 March 2019


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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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