StatsSA Labour Force Survey may confuse some – but not the working class!

Is SA’s official statistical agency senile, or can we blame Government austerity?

Amidst bizarrely contradictory statements, the official statistics agency of the South African government today painted a horrific picture of a country that has reached a point of no return. Millions have now crossed the line from job-seeker into utter hopelessness, as they have been tossed out of what is termed “labour force participation.”

But government is intent on pulling the wool over our eyes. How foolish do they think we are, at a time Covid-19 is creating the worst socio-economic conditions our people have ever faced?

On the one hand, we learned from StatsSA that from April-June, the unemployment rate had its most impressive improvement ever during such a short period, from 30% to 23%. Surreal!

On the other, we know from the same statistical agency that at the end of June, there were actually five million fewer ‘employed’ and informally-employed workers than in late March when lockdown was declared. This is the very definition of hopelessness.

StatsSA needs a profound clean up; we know that the agency has been starved of funding on various occasions and as a result, the quality of official statistics degenerated. At one point a dozen years ago, StatsSA counted ‘begging’ as official employment. At another point, StatsSA’s mistakes in measuring inflation, cost millions of pensioners their due monthly increase in adjusted pensions; the former StatsSA director Pali Lehohla has bravely admitted this.

In turn, this new labour market report should alert all South Africans to how ridiculous the agency has now become, at a time of the worst economic suffering the working class has faced in nearly a century.

Of course, South Africa’s workers are not confused. We understand the simple message that came out of StatsSA as follows:

  1. the number of employed workers decreased by 2.2 millionto 14.1 million; in short, at the beginning of this year there were more than 16 million workers in employment and today there are only 14 million. There is no basis for StatsSA to claim a decline in the unemployment rate from 30 to 23% as a result – it is a reflection of the agency’s own senility, in the way it counts the labour force.
  2. There are two main reasons for what appears to be an unforgiveable contradiction, one that insults all of our workers who have taken the brunt of South Africa’s worst-ever economic crisis. The first reason is the definition of employed and unemployed workers used by StatsSA. Secondly, StatsSA concedes that during the lockdown they could not send field researchers to do counting, and accordingly relied on telephones. We all know who has and does not have telephones. Even though the agency claims it corrected for this bias, why would we believe anything from StatsSA now?
  3. The main contradiction, though, is that StatsSA uses fairy-dust accounting in understanding the meaning of “work.” That word is defined as merely one “yes” answer to any of these three questions: “In the last week, (a) Did you work for a wage, salary, commission or any payment in any kind (including paid domestic work), even if it was for only one hour? (b) Did you run or do any kind of business, big or small, for yourself or with one or more partners, even if it was for only one hour? (c) Did you help without being paid in any kind of business run by your household, even if it was for only one hour?” In sum, if you work one hour in a week, StatsSA thinks you have employment.
  4. In the same fantasy-land spirit, StatsSA makes a claim that can only be explained through its fraudulent semantic strategy: the numbers of discouraged work seekers decreased by 447 000. For reasons it cannot explain to the public, StatsSA admits that the majority of those workers have moved into a category of “not economically active for reasons other than discouragement.” That category increased by 5.6 million between the two quarters. Again, we want to discourage anyone in South African society from turning their brain into a pretzel, trying to figure out what StatsSA is getting at, because it is a futile exercise. We suggest a new slogan for the work of StatsSA: “We torture the data – until they confess!”
  5. There is, however, one important statistic that can be gleaned, if we try to find a hard spot to stand upon while trekking across the swamp of StatsSA: thelabour force participation rate collapsed, from 60 to 47%. South Africa’s population is 60 million, and 39 million are of working age. A shockingly low level of these people were in the workforce in January-March 2020, around six out of ten. But by late June, an additional 5 million people had fallen out of the “labour force” (bringing the share of potential workers to just 47%). Of these, 2.8 million were not counted in the definition of “employed” – and potentially received the R350/month grant – and 2.2 million were employed but are now not, some of whom received unemployment benefits. This crash of 13% in the “labour force participation rate” represents a kidnapping of working-age people unprecedented in history, we reckon.
  6. We must add that StatsSA completely buys into another insulting fallacy: women who do unpaid work in the social reproduction of our society and especially our labour force, are not creating Gross Domestic Product. StatsSA bureaucrats who refuse to acknowledge the flaws in GDP – no women’s unpaid work, no community work, no pollution, no resource depletion, no wear-and-tear on capital – need to be sent to an apartheid-era pasture for old fogeys, where they should no longer do harm to national debates about our societal well-being. If StatsSA continues to issue GDP without the qualification that it is ignoring women’s unpaid labour (and these other crucial factors), then yes, it deserves the austerity Treasury is meting out, and indeed should be shut down like a dusty dinosaur corpse.
  7. Put aside the statistical fiddling by StatsSA, itself a victim of debilitating budget cuts that means it cannot properly carry out its mission, no matter its absurd biases. What concerns all workers is Government reluctance to recognise these missing five million South African workers who have in April-June been effectively ejected from “labour force participation.” Their market income evaporated. The tokenistic R350/month for a few who could qualify is no consolation.

As we look at this nuclear-scale meltdown of jobs, we reject with contempt that the crisis is entirely caused by the Covid-19 lockdown. We were deep in a recession before that and indeed, the pro-capitalist regime of Cyril Ramaphosa was from February 2018 unable to pull South Africa out of its rut. Most of the 30 months since he took power witnessed the economy wallowing in recession. Now we are looking at a formal Depression.

South Africa inherited a deep crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequalities, from the capitalist, colonial and apartheid era. The disappointing part is that the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequalities worsened during the democratic era, due to neoliberal economic policies. Even though during the commodity super-cycle and expansion of consumer credit, from 2003-08, our economy grew by up to 5% annually, this did not address any of these crises.

SAFTU feels vindicated that in recent weeks we have taken the decision to go back to the streets and fight back. On 28 September, we submitted demands that centred on economic revival and social justice. We make this our central demand: our economy must be restructured all together. SAFTU demands that the economy be overhauled to rid itself of all vestiges of racism, colonialism, patriarchy and ecocide that continue to shape the economy.

SAFTU is working hard to build the biggest possible front of working class unity to start a new revolution, aimed at the total emancipation of the working class from the exploitative capitalist system. This includes Treasury’s neoliberal approach to the economy that entrenches rather liberates the exploitative practises. And now thanks to the absurd trickery of StatsSA, we insist on ending the bogus ways of counting our society’s suffering under neoliberalism, including the loony labour statistics and biased GDP.

The demands we submitted to NEDLAC are very clear and we will not rest until each of them is realised.

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