SA jobs: Lies, damned lies and statistics

Every year, on a regular basis, that old saying: “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics,” comes to mind.

This is when Stats SA releases either the official quarterly employment statistics (QES) or the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS). The work in these studies is usually impeccable and the results reliable.

But then comes the interpretation, often influenced by politics and all too frequently spiced with wishful thinking.

This week was no different, with the focus admittedly encouraged by a Stats SA media release that the country had added 56 000 jobs in the first quarter.

It resulted in one commentator remarking that this rosy picture should “put a smile on the face of President Cyril Ramaphosa”.

It is true that the QES reveals an addition of 56 000 jobs. However, that is a far cry from the full picture because the QES statistics do not include that essential productive sector – agriculture.

The QES survey covers only formal, non-agricultural employment.

Meanwhile, the QLFS released in May showed a loss of 3 000 jobs in the farming sector in the first quarter of the year. Given the extent of the recent – in some regions ongoing – drought, the longer term effects on farm labour may be serious, but we will have to wait for the second quarter QLFS to find out.

What is most worrying about the QES figures is the fact that most of this relatively minor growth was not in the productive sectors.

The figures in the survey came from “community services”, where a “surge” of 67 000 jobs was reported. For the most part, these were jobs created by municipalities and may have been, and often were, temporary and very low paid.

The annual overview provided by the survey is certainly not rosy, despite the fact that year-on-year employment increased by 74 000. But this was mainly in the community services sector.

Construction, mining, manufacturing and transport all recorded job losses in the past year, from March to March.

This increase in jobs was also outstripped by a conservatively estimated population growth of 150 000. What this all boils down to is that unemployment officially remains at 26.7%.

Perhaps most worrying is the fact of the more than 10 million citizens aged between 15 and 24, more than 3 million – roughly one in every three young people – are not in work, education or training.

It is also becoming clear that austerity is starting to bite. Not only are there calls for lower wage demands, but there’s also the fact that average gross wages have started to decline. At least our social security, such as it is, remains intact. And for all its problems, a national health scheme of some kind is being pursued.

Calls to tighten belts and to “pull together” for a promised better future at a time of ongoing economic crisis is a global reality, although in the US this tends to be hidden behind what the labour movement says are simple lies. President Donald Trump continues to maintain that a “better future” has begun, yet this week his administration put forward proposals to cut the paltry medical and social services that exist, to “save the country” more than $2 trillion (R27 trillion) over the next decade.

This distortion in statistics was shown by the unions after critically analysing the available data. It is a lesson to bear in mind whenever statistics are presented, especially when politicians make confident comments about them.

* Terry Bell is a seasoned labour columnist. Views expressed are his own.

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