Continually lost in the ongoing row about the mooted youth wage subsidy is the context in which it is being proposed. Not just the national, but the global context. It is a context in which there are fewer and fewer jobs for more and more job seekers. At the same time, there is a widespread assumption that there will be jobs to be had if only the millions of unemployed youth in particular were provided with adequate skills.
But both surplus capacity and surplus production, together with the ongoing development of technology make this highly improbable. The end result is not only increased, and increasing, joblessness, but also a sharp rise in temporary and parttime work and a steady decline in the disposable incomes of working families. As the British Trade Union Congress noted this week: “While part-time or temporary jobs may be better than no work at all, people are having to make huge salary sacrifices, reduce their hours and trade down their skills to stay in work.” In the longer term this means major structural changes are probably necessary. But, in the meantime, there seems consensus that steps should be taken to alleviate some of the worst aspects of this crisis that affects more than 75 million young people alone.
This is the context of the current youth wage subsidy row. In the verbal cacophony emanating from all sides, two simple truths emerge: 1. youth unemployment is a critical and potentially explosive issue and, 2. the labour movement is united in opposing a simple youth wage subsidy.
On all sides there is a shortage of detail, and little in terms of models for any structural, let alone palliative measures. Yet there is evidence, over several years, of at least one highly successful project in South Africa of youth training and job placement, that has, until now, largely been ignored. There is also a degree of misinformation. Although Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille claims that her party, business “and the country’s second largest trade union federation, Fedusa” support the proposal, she is wrong. The Federation of Unions, like Cosatu, the National Council of Trade unions, and the Confederation of SA Workers’ Unions remains opposed. Says Fedusa general secretary Dennis George: “We are concerned that an unconditional wage subsidy would create a two-tier labour market open to misuse by employers who seek to maximise profit and improve their bottom lines.” Yet none within the labour movement disputes that funding will be essential for any moves to remedy the situation. “However, any subsidy has to be made conditional on an adequate training and educational component,” says George. Apprenticeships and “mentoring” are mentioned as examples, although the labour movement is usually criticised for simply opposing any wage subsidy.
Commentators have also pilloried Cosatu in particular for being concerned only with “the bigger picture”, with the search for alternatives to the crisis-wracked capitalist system. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was criticised on this score for his statements to the federations’ international policy conference last week. But Vavi was speaking about international policy, about the fact that the global system is in crisis and that, in the long term, remedies have to be found to deal with the system as a whole. In the meantime, he, together with the rest of the labour movement, proposes a range of measures on the domestic front under the heading of “structured education and training”.
Yet such structured education and training is exactly what is happening in a small, but highly successful way in the middle of that semi-arid vastness of the Karoo. In the Colesberg district of the Northern Cape, the Hantam Community Educational Trust (HCET) draws its students from among one of the most historically disadvantaged communities in the country, and has racked up a series of successes. Established 23 years ago by a group of farmers’ wives as a pre-school centre for the children of farm labourers, the trust project has developed steadily over the years.
Today HCET, funded mainly by business and private donors, boasts a school from Grade R to Grade 9 with 174 students, a primary health clinic, pharmacy, outreach programme, and catering course. There are also academic bursary and vocational training programmes for graduates, along with in-service training for teachers.
Graduates from the school taking courses as welders, hospitality workers or hairdressers are all given special life skills training, assisted to get driving licences and given coaching in areas such as interview skills, budgeting and the preparation of CVs. One of the vocational graduates, Themba Matyeka, is now an instructor in welding on the West Coast via winning the title of the country’s champion welder. Other students have gone on to tertiary education while still others, having graduated from the Trust catering course in Colesberg town, are now in full-time employment. “The simple truth is that there is no silver bullet to solve this youth unemployment problem,” says HCET project co-ordinator Lesley Osler. “A solid educational grounding is essential and then we provide mentoring for our students when they go on to higher education, or into vocational training; even when they start their first jobs.”
Cosatu’s Patrick Craven admits: “This is exactly the sort of thing we in the labour movement would like to see.” It is also accords with the advice of such diverse organisations as the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation. As early as 2003 a study published by the Bank revealed that it is “difficult to reverse education failures through training”. And both the World Bank and the ILO acknowledge that no single programme or policy has yet emerged that provides an answer.
On the structural front, and on a global basis, answers, let alone action, may be a long time coming. But at least, a model of successful “structured education and training” does exist in a small, educational and development project in the middle of the Hatam Karoo. Whether it will be adopted remains to be seen.