Business Day Weekender, Johannesburg, 2006/10/07 12:00:00 AM

A job is a job when it can lift a person out of poverty

Kevin O’Grady

WHEN is a job not a job? This is a pertinent question in light of an article I wrote in last week’s edition of this newspaper, questioning whether the employment data released by Statistics SA gave us an accurate impression of progress in the fight against unemployment.

The gist of the article was that nearly a third of all new jobs created in the year to March were farming jobs.

Most of these newly employed people were subsistence farmers in the Eastern Cape, who benefited from a government-run agrarian reform programme.

Apart from the sheer incongruity of stellar growth in a sector of the economy — agriculture — that is shrinking, according to Stats SA’s figures, the story raised questions about whether it is useful to include in the ranks of the employed people those who subsist, simply because it is “work” that enables them to do so.

One reader, Leonard Seelig, took umbrage at the article, writing to request that I, “who one assumes to be an economist, explain why … taking someone who does not work and giving them a piece of land to work and subsist on, does not qualify as creating a job”.

“Most people would assume that a ‘job’ is something with which an individual legally improves their standard of living, whether that be by using the cash pay received or by using the food or other products generated. In a developing economy, subsistence farming should be encouraged as a way out of poverty and malnutrition,” he wrote.

Seelig’s letter is based on some incorrect assumptions, the first and most dangerous of which is that I am an economist.

The second is that the story in question somehow sought to denigrate efforts to lift people out of poverty and starvation, when it did nothing of the sort.

Nor did it particularly take issue with Stats SA’s classification of subsistence farmers as employed, as they fall within the definition used by Stats SA and recommended by the International Labour Organisation.

All it really did, between the lines, is ask whether we should be trumpeting improvements in the unemployment rate, when a large number of people fall within the definition of “employed” but are, in reality, simply the beneficiaries of the type of programme that is usually run by nongovernmental organisations.

When you give someone a piece of land and some implements to farm it, you may help them to keep malnutrition at bay, but are you really lifting them out of poverty?

A subsistence farmer, by definition, produces enough food to survive. He doesn’t have capital to invest in his enterprise. He contributes to the economy neither as a buyer nor a seller.

He has no money even for transport to get surplus produce, if there is any, to market, nor to get his children to school.

If government succeeds in halving the unemployment rate by 2014, will we be content if all of those in jobs created between now and then are subsistence farmers such as these, producing barely enough to survive? I suspect not, and neither will the farmers.

It is not for nothing that subsistence farmers, when they take part in surveys such as Stats SA’s Labour Force Survey, categorise themselves as unemployed.

It is only through a bureaucratic, some would say politically expedient, decision that they are counted among those with jobs in the first place.

From: http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=2269648

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