Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What should South Africa do about unskilled migrant labour?

I'm doing some renovations on my pond at the moment. Which has been a nightmare and story in itself. It took 4 months to find a contractor. In a city of 8 million people, you'd think finding a koi pond contractor should be relatively easy. After all it's hardly rocket science. However I fired many potential contractors before I even got their quotes. Others told me they had a six month backlog. And others apparently don't bother unless your koi pond has multi-million rand potential. But finally I found someone who is apparently reliable and available. So now I have a two metre deep hole in my garden.

The labourers working on the hole initially consisted of one South African and two Zimbabwean refugees. The Zimabaweans could hardly speak English and were hardly productive. And they lived in Krugersdorp which meant it took them about 3 hours to get to work in the morning.

With over 40% of South Africans unskilled an unemployed, should we be taking on Zimbabweans or any other refugees? They are typically exploited and many building contractors pay them less than R20 (US$3) per day. They can't afford transport on these wages and end up squatting on vacant land or river banks in the cities. R20 will buy you a loaf of bread and a litre of milk.

While all this is going on, our world cup stadium workers have been striking for bonuses double their current level. I understand they earn R2 200 per month (just over US $300) and have demanded bonuses of R1 500 per month. This may not seem like a lot. However, in a global economy, we're competing with Chinese workers earning less than a third of that. Which is why our textile industry just cannot compete.

Of course one might argue that Chinese markets are distorted by human rights abuses, etc. While this might be true, every cent inflated due to protectionism comes out of the South African consumers' pockets (illustrated through the economic concept known as a deadweight loss).

South Africa's only long term solution is to raise levels of skill. The short term solution of deflating the Rand will merely result in inflationary pressures due to imported goods and thereafter a potential wage price spiral. Sadly it takes generations to move from uneducated unskilled labour to sophisticated engineering and manufacturing economies like those of Korea. Although the South Korean story is truly inspirational - it moved from a largely agricultural economy to a world engineering and manufacturing leader in little over 40 years.

But back to those Zimbabweans. They took jobs that any unskilled South African worker could have performed. In contrast, a friend who married an Australian teacher was forced to emigrate because she could not get a work permit in South Africa. There is a shortage of teacher's in South Africa. Their staying in the country would have resulted in a multiplier effect of spending and job creation for lower skilled workers (each higher income worker creates between 3 and 5 lower income jobs in South Africa).

Instead they left, costing the economy two skilled workers who are in short supply. And the income they earned that would have been spent and created lower skilled jobs. And we have workers flooding across the border and taking jobs from workers we have in excess supply.

Pretty screwed up. Frankly I believe the problem is that we have a government that feels unable to criticise or refuse demands from other African states. Switching on the electric fence along our border (turned off in 1994 due to the number of deaths of illegal immigrants), forcing Zimbabwean regime change and refusing unskilled immigration and refugees are unpalatable to a government that sees criticising other African / non-western nations as a betrayal.

Our mines are full of migrant workers from neighbouring states. This is a legacy from apartheid days where migrant labour provided a means of keeping wages low. To some extent it is understandable that former liberation movements feel unable to slam the door shut.

It is distressing though that our labour department postures with an apparently frivolous complaint against Comair and our major trade union grouping Cosatu is arguing against tighter immigration laws. Surely time and effort would be better spent inspecting building sites, farms, etc and ensuring workers are properly accredited with South African residence and work permits.

I wonder what our unemployed South African workers think?

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