Programme exploits workers

Government’s flagship job creation programme funds a number of labour-intensive programmes which benefit agriculture, such as the removal of alien plants and the patching up of rural roads. But the workers themselves benefit the least, says social commentator Glenn Ashton.

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Unemployment and poverty are South Africa’s terrible twins. The social risks of a restive, unemployed workforce are legion. That the majority of school leavers cannot secure employment emphasises our dilemma. The government has two primary interventions to address this problem. Firstly, it has implemented one of the world’s most extensive social grant systems to support the neediest. Secondly, it is well down the road in rolling out a massive job creation programme, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), which aims to half unemployment by 2014.

The EPWP was initiated during Thabo Mbeki’s term. While it was largely based on the successful ‘Working for Water’ model of poverty alleviation, from the outset it had unacceptably high operating costs and inexplicably opaque overheads. Some employment was created, but the primary beneficiaries were – and remain – the well-connected, not the poor. In some cases, less than 10% of programme costs reach the workers as wages. Some are paid less than R50 per day.

This is exploitation on a grand scale, where well-connected movers and shakers take the cream, leaving the crumbs for the purported beneficiaries. On average, less than R1 in every R5 in the EPWP budget is paid to the workers. The target beneficiaries will be lucky to get R15 billion of this year’s R77,5 billion EPWP budget. The rest will evaporate into obscure administration and overhead costs.

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Programme goals
This constantly increasing expenditure is projected to provide 1,5 million work opportunities and around 650 000 full-time job equivalents by 2014. The stated aim of the Zuma administration to use the EPWP as a vehicle to halve unemployment appears to be a bridge too far. What exactly are ‘work opportunities’ and ‘full-time job equivalents’? A work opportunity is defined as employment for a person for a time; a week, month or year. The optimum length of a work opportunity is considered to be a 100 work days. The initial phases of the EPWP provided an average work time of 66 days.

The more accurate and broadly accepted measure is the ‘full-time job equivalent’, which equates to 230 days of employment in a year. This equates to a year of normal work, with some significant differences. Most EPWP work is labour intensive – shorthand for damn hard work. This can be at, or below the minimum wage, with no health, leave, unemployment or other benefits.

Some work is reportedly fairly well paid, up to R200 per day, but these are exceptions. Beneficiaries may not work on EPWP programmes for more than two years in every five. The EPWP is also meant to train workers, initially aiming to provide two days’ training for every 20 worked. The standard and type of training remains vague.

Reviews and practical experience of the EPWP have clearly demonstrated serious shortcomings. For instance, the work intensity, against the capital invested, is abysmal. Similar projects in Kenya have seen over half of project spending paid to beneficiaries and infrastructure programmes completed. The EPWP pays beneficiaries at a fifth of that level with poorly measured outcomes.

While some excellent records have been kept which illustrate these sorts of inefficiencies, a central problem is a failure to specify outcomes or products. In the infrastructure component, the largest component of the EPWP, wages to beneficiaries fell from just over 27% to less than 10% over five years. No reason is given for this fall.

It is clearly unacceptable that up to 90% of the value of the programme was absorbed by contractors, administration and other unspecified costs. Worse yet, efficiency and payment levels have plummeted as the project progressed. Instead of creating a watertight system and improving it as it grew, a weak, poorly managed system has been allowed to perpetuate.
On the West Coast, projects have shown consistent under-delivery on programme goals, poor payment records, failure to provide adequate transport for workers in far flung locations and extremely poor payment of workers.

Alien plants have not been cleared where they were claimed to have been, and if cleared, not properly followed up. Clearing was done by untrained contractors. Workers have sometimes waited months for payment. This exploitation continues. It amounts to nothing more than taking advantage of people desperate for work to put food on the table.

What’s needed
This is not to say that all EPWP programmes have failed. Some have produced excellent results – the Working on Water Programme is mostly well managed and monitored. Records exist of achievements and of follow-up programmes. Given the huge threat of alien invasive plants to our extremely limited water supply, this and related programmes, such as Working for Wetlands and Working for Fire, provide excellent models.

These programmes have proven that they can provide quantifiable benefits to water security, biodiversity preservation, sustainable energy provision, and most importantly to the intended beneficiaries. The real tragedy of the EPWP is that it can, and should, make a huge difference. Yet poor control, reporting and oversight mechanisms have blighted major aspects of the programme. Cronyism and tenderpreneurs have skimmed more than the cream in many cases.

There is an urgent requirement for a specialised flying inspectorate to be put in place, so that allegations of labour and financial abuse can be inspected and acted upon at short notice. Everyone working within the EPWP must have access to such an inspectorate to keep management honest. The inspectorate should operate independently of the EPWP and the Department of Public Works, possibly in consultation with the Hawks.

Finally, the Department of Public Works, a profoundly dysfunctional department, must be held to account. Good work has been done by the relevant Parliamentary Portfolio Committee but this requires robust follow-up. An independent internal review panel reporting to the minister, would be a sensible start. The principles underlying the EPWP programme are sound. It is inexcusable to compromise such a noble project by allowing it to degenerate into a cesspit of crony capitalism. – Robyn Joubert

Glenn Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. His work can be viewed at
Source: The South African Civil Society Information Service (
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.