Research Findings

The politics of public employment in South Africa

November 25, 2021

Over the past few decades, public employment programmes (PEPs) have played an increasingly significant role in the systems of social assistance of many low and middle-income countries. With the economies of many countries consistently failing to create enough jobs, or enough good quality jobs, to provide for all citizens, many governments have taken up the task of creating jobs directly through PEPs. 

Proponents of PEPs see them as addressing not only the economic, but also the social consequences of widespread unemployment and underemployment, in a way that grants and other forms of social assistance do not. A “job”, in many countries, is seen as a key component of full citizenship. It is thought to promote stability by acting as a “tangible and direct response on the part of the state to the challenge of unemployment, which may enhance citizen perceptions of state legitimacy and capacity”.

Since 2018 we have been conducting research on the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) in South Africa, one of the largest PEPs in the world relative to the size of the national economy. We have focused on workers doing construction and infrastructure-related work, the largest of the four sectors in which the EPWP operates. Our research suggests that the program often leads to the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than promoting inclusion and reinforcing social stability, the EPWP fosters resentment and conflict among its participants. EPWP construction projects are frequently the site of protest and disruption, and beneficiaries often take their grievances related to the program to the courts, to government offices, and to other official spaces far beyond the work-site. 

This is something of a puzzle. Jobs are widely recognized as one of the highest priorities of South African voters. So why would a programme that directly delivers such a highly desired benefit be the source of frequent conflict? To understand this, we spoke to a range of stakeholders. We found that the conflict takes two primary forms, and that each type of conflict has different implications for the social and political impact of the programme.

Conflict over working conditions

The first form of conflict is focused on the conditions and the status of the work itself. Much of this conflict is driven by the disconnect between the program’s promise of the dignity of a job and the precarious reality of unskilled work in the construction industry. Construction projects run under the EPWP are required to use labour intensive methods to increase employment opportunities. 

While this makes sense for the goal of increasing employment, it exacerbates the workers’ experience of the work as difficult physical drudgery. Furthermore, workers are often subject to various forms of mistreatment that are common among all informal construction workers. Wages are withheld unfairly. Workers are not paid for time when their work is disrupted by weather or supply shortages, even though labour law and EPWP guidelines explicitly regulate payment in these situations. In extreme cases employers even disappear without paying workers wages owed. 

In addition to the sometimes poor conditions, this type of conflict also challenges EPWP beneficiaries’ peculiar legal status. EPWP work is explicitly differentiated from formal employment and is not subject to many key aspects of labour legislation. For example, workers do not earn the normal minimum wage, nor do they have access to the national Unemployment Insurance Fund when their job ends, as would a normal employee. These exemptions reflect the priority to increase the volume of EPWP employment by lowering all associated costs. 

However, from the perspective of the beneficiaries, they are often experienced as a sort of bait-and-switch. Participants are promised a “job”, but after taking it they find it does not have many of the rights and benefits that make a “job” so desirable in the first place. These conflicts can be understood as an attempt by workers to realize what they see as the rights due to a citizen and a worker. They are, essentially, an appeal to be treated like a “worker” rather than a social policy beneficiary.

Conflict over access

The second form of conflict centers not on the conditions of the work, but by the overall scarcity of work in the South African economy, and especially in the peri-urban neighbourhoods where EPWP projects are concentrated. Here residents compete for access to EPWP jobs, and demands are made not through a frame of generalized labour or citizenship rights, but through particularistic local identities. Residents in a given area often protest in demand for more EPWP jobs in the area, or to exclude perceived “outsiders” from getting jobs in “their” area. This conflict does not take place through formal legal institutions, but in the extra-legal space of street politics. 

It is important to note that while we distinguish between these two types on conflict in order to better understand the implications of the program, in practice, the two forms are not always completely distinct. A specific EPWP project might begin with exclusionary conflict over the selection of participants and later see the emergence of a case at the labour court aimed at challenging some violation of workers’ rights.

The political implications of EPWP conflict

The frequency of conflict generated by EPWP projects challenges the idea that PEPs necessarily promote social stability and inclusion. The exclusionary conflict over access to EPWP jobs is particularly problematic. By rejecting generalized notions of citizenship rights in favour of local identities, this form of conflict seems to undermine rather than build social cohesion. One possible policy reform to mitigate this form of conflict would be to make access to EPWP jobs a universal citizenship right. 

However, expanding to a universal programme would not necessarily deal with the other form of EPWP conflict. In order to achieve such wide coverage it would likely be necessary to maintain and perhaps even expand the various legal exemptions which differentiate EPWP work from standard employment. This means that the program would be unlikely to foster a sense of inclusion and social cohesion, and would instead remain a site of conflict and resentment.

If we assume that the promotion of social stability is a necessary aspect of a social policy, then it makes sense to conclude that PEPs are a flawed form of social policy. However, we could also think about the demands of EPWP beneficiaries as part of a larger conflict over wages and working conditions, and one which potentially unites the interests of the employed and unemployed in interesting ways. Conflicts over the conditions and status of EPWP work are often channelled through the legal structures which are intended to uphold workers rights throughout the labour market such as the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration or the Labour Court. Since EPWP participants in these conflicts demand to be afforded the rights and benefits of any other workers, they implicitly reinforce the association between citizenship rights and decent work. 

These are demands that EPWP participants share with employed formal workers. In our article, we noted that union activity in the struggles of EPWP workers was limited. That is still the case, but there are some emerging examples of trade union organization among and/or in solidarity with EPWP participants. While actions uniting employed workers and the unemployed and social policy beneficiaries remain relatively rare, our research suggests there is potential for more of this sort of organization. 

Despite the contradictions we have identified, the EPWP remains popular with government officials and politicians. As in many other countries, the expansion of public employment is a key component of the government’s response to the economic impact of the pandemic. This suggests that the political dynamics of the programme we have highlighted will remain important in the coming years.

Read more

Ben Scully and Thabiso Moyo. “Constructing Conflict: The Politics of Job Creation Policy, Precarious Work, and Citizenship in South Africa’s Construction Industry” in Critical Sociology 2021.

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