Unemployment research typically inquires how to generate more jobs and how to keep workers working. Researchers often probe the reservation wage level (which appears to balance the interests of employees and employers). Qualitative research findings suggest that wages may be less significant factors in work-related decisions than the nature of interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Both employees and employers emphasise the importance of the quality of relationships, though employers and employees highlight different factors.
Labour productivity grew substantially in the first twenty years of democracy, but is this unequivocally good? Much of the increase has been driven by changes at the firm level. Smaller firms’ average labour productivity increased more than that of larger firms. This seems to reflect changes in the composition of firms and jobs – smaller firms and low-productivity jobs appear to be vanishing. This is worrying because these are the type of jobs we need to reduce unemployment.
The responses of unemployed workers to the typical survey question about their ‘lowest acceptable wages’ are susceptible to error and overestimation – particularly for people in persistent joblessness. Studies using only the responses to the standard question may incorrectly conclude that vulnerable workers are unemployed because they tend to price themselves out of employment – while in fact their responses are just unreliable and distorted indications of their true reservation wages. Alternative questions would give more reliable results.
While technology is making capital cheaper, policies like the national minimum wage will make labour more expensive. What does this mean for the choices firms make in terms of labour and capital inputs? This research shows that higher prices for labour will result in lower demand for labour, making job creation more difficult. Low-skilled and high-skilled labour are substitutes – higher wages for low-skilled workers will encourage firms to employ more high-skilled workers and become more skill intensive.
Foreign migrants often enter informal employment as day labourers. They compete with South Africans for jobs in this curb-side labour market. Three surveys of day labourers working in Tshwane between 2004 and 2015 reveal two important tendencies. First, the foreign-migrant component has increased from 12% to just over 55% in 11 years. Secondly, the wages and the level of poverty of both foreign and South African day labourers have worsened in the same period.
Have real wages fallen behind or increased out of line with productivity? A macroeconomic perspective
Macroeconomic data on wages and productivity suggest that there has not been any constant tendency for real wages either to fall behind or increase out of line with increases in productivity. Upward shifts have affected real wages sporadically, but have subsequently been offset by downward shifts, leaving a one-to-one long-run relationship between real wages and productivity. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom in both the labour union and business worlds.
The time and monetary costs of commuting are extremely high and have increased over the last 20 years. They imply a substantial ‘tax’ on the wages of those who commute to work, notably on the users of public transport. Commuters increasingly use private vehicles and minibus taxis today compared to 1993. The government’s public transport subsidies seem to benefit those in the (lower) middle of the income distribution rather than low-income workers.
It has been argued that properly focused workplace intermediaries can reshape the labour market to become more youth friendly. Case studies of NGO intermediaries in South Africa offer some optimism but also caution in this regard. Although the intermediaries were able to match unemployed youth to jobs, smooth the transition to work and even positively influence employers’ reticence, they are small in scale and costs are high – and they have yet to broker larger pacts to add more jobs.
Labour-market intermediaries can make a significant contribution to the reduction of youth unemployment.They recognise that the demand for labour is not fixed. By reshaping the attributes and broader workplace skills of the young jobseeker, labour market intermediaries can help overcome employers’ reticence to employing first-time workers. Such interventions, although small in scale, may be more successful than larger public works schemes of government. The potential positive impact of such intermediaries is demonstrated with international examples.
The inflexibility of the labour market is commonly used as a scapegoat to explain high unemployment. Yet new evidence shows that only in specific contexts (unionized workers in the short run) does wage rigidity restrain the ability of the labour market to absorb workers. In the long run, wages are much more flexible and structural factors explain more of the unemployment puzzle. The policy debate on unemployment and wage flexibility needs to take these subtleties into account.