Definitions and stats muddy unemployment picture

Patrice Khumalo sells oranges and sweets in Durban ‘s central business district. Cyril Dhlomo from Gauteng watches over cars in exchange for a donation. After numerous attempts to secure employment, Carol Reddy has since given up looking for a job and depends on family for support. Are these three employed or unemployed? What do unemployment statistics say?

In determining whether Patrice, Cyril or Carol are unemployed or not, the official statistical service in South Africa, Stats SA, uses a number of different instruments to measure the level of unemployment in the country. Stats SA also conducts surveys to determine the rate of unemployment. In the April edition of Strategy Insights Professor Andre Roux states that; “The official definition states that the unemployed are those people within the economically active population who

do not work during the seven days prior to the survey interview
want to work and are available to work within a week; and
have taken active steps to look for work or to start some form of self- employment in the four weeks prior to the interview”.

So what does this mean for the ordinary person on the street? For Roux, this official definition means that if you are jobless but haven’t tried to obtain employment in the preceding four weeks of the survey, you are not unemployed. So if Patrice, Cyril and Carol have not sought employment four weeks prior to the survey, they could, by this definition, be considered to be employed.

But the story doesn’t stop here. Cosatu’s Neva Makgetla says that according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS), “anyone who works at all for pay has a job”. So by this definition, Patrice and Cyril are employed but Carol is unemployed.

But Stats SA uses two different sets of surveys – Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the Survey of Employment and Earnings (SEE). The LFS survey takes place twice a year and obtains employment data from households – so “people working in all industries, large or small, registered and unregistered, formal or informal, are surveyed”. The Survey of Employment and Earnings (SEE) is a quarterly survey. “SEE obtains data from formal sector businesses registered for VAT, and with an annual turnover of R300 000 or more”, says Roux.

The use of the two surveys leads to disparities in unemployment statistics. Results from the census that are also used to measure employment and unemployment, complicate things further.

For Makgetla the disparities are obvious: “The labour force survey said employment rose 2,8% a year between 1996 and 2001, the census said 1% and the employment and earnings survey saw a decline of 2,3% a year” ( Business Day , 23 April). Roux illustrates similar disparities between the SEE and LFS: “According to the SEE the number of employees in the formal non-agricultural business sector decreased from 6,51 million in September 2002 to 6,37 million in September 2003. By contrast, the LFS shows an increase in the number of employed people from 11,03 million in September 2002 to 11,6 million in September 2003″.

Both Makgetla and Roux say that the LFS is the more comprehensive of the two and therefore more reliable. There is also the problem of “only the non-agricultural business sector being surveyed”.

While academics debate the accuracy of statistics and methodologies, life is hard for the poor and unemployed. As Makgetla argues “very casual, poorly paid labour hardly helps solve problems of poverty and lack of jobs”. Besides, being employed in the formal sector does not necessarily imply a privileged position.

Swimming in a muddy pool of definitions, stats, graphs and tables can sometimes blur the real picture. Look around you. There is a Patrice, Cyril and Carol on every street corner – poverty, homelessness and unemployment are all around.

Woody Aroun is KZN regional education officer