The DA drops the ball on jobs

John Kane-Berman says the "jobseekers' exemption certificate" policy won't work

The Democratic Alliance spoils a good idea to combat unemployment

"Liberal" has for long been a swearword in South Africa. So it is good to see the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane, using the term to describe his party's beliefs and promising that "we will never abandon our liberal values".

The DA's explicit rejection at its recent federal congress in Pretoria of racial quotas is something liberals should applaud. Less deserving of applause is the resolution the congress adopted to introduce a "jobseekers' exemption certificate" should the DA ever come to power.

Although at first sight such a certificate might seem a good idea in that holders thereof will be able to accept wages below the national minimum of R3 500 due to come into operation sometime this year, the conditions attached to obtaining it are onerous and unnecessary. They are also unfair to some of those the certificate is presumably designed to help, including first-time jobseekers.

First-time jobseekers account for almost 40% of unemployment. Many of these will be school-leavers and others entering the labour market for the first time. Yet none of them will be eligible for the certificate until they have been unemployed for 12 months or more. This is a harsh restriction to impose upon people looking for their first job.

It also adds a major qualification to Mr Maimane's assertion at the end of last year that "we must reform our labour market for young people to find employment after leaving school". Such young people are now being told that if they find a job with an employer willing to pay only an amount less than the minimum, they must wait a year before they can take that job.    

First-time jobseekers are not the only ones who will fall foul of the 12-month restriction, for it will apply to all ages. On the official definition of unemployment, more than two million people have been out of work for less than a year. On the expanded definition, which counts discouraged workers as among the unemployed, that number rises to around three million. Penalising all these jobseekers because they have not been unemployed for long enough to qualify for the certificate seems perverse.

Nor is this the only objection to the DA's proposal. The certificate is presumably something that some bureaucrat will provide once the applicant has produced proof that he or she has been unemployed for more than a year. How many additional bureaucrats will be hired to vet applicants and issue certificates? Who will pay for the travel for jobseekers to get to see them? How long will they have to queue for? How will the necessary proof be obtained? From whom?

The certificate will be valid for only two years, after which the unemployed person will have to apply again.

In a speech at the end of last year Mr Maimane said small businesses needed maximum flexibility to employ as many people as possible without being "held back by restrictive regulation and red tape". He also said of young people emerging from the country's "dysfunctional schooling system" that "the very last thing you need is any more obstacles put in your way of finding work". At last week's congress the chairman of the DA's federal executive, James Selfe, said that the people the party had spoken to were desperate to become employed.        

Yet the manner in which the DA now proposes to implement its "jobseekers' exemption certificate" involves putting obstacles in the form of regulation and red tape in the way of these desperate people.

The DA's resolution endorsing the certificate says it is designed to give beneficiaries "the right to enter into any employment agreements with an employer on any conditions with which they are comfortable". Although this phraseology is designed to enable jobseekers to sign employment contracts at wages below the statutory minimum, the "right" it purports to grant is heavily qualified. Nor is there anything particularly liberal about a proposal that creates a right with one hand, while on the other making its exercise dependent on a certificate issued by the government.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.