Why ‘Decent Jobs’ become ‘No Jobs’ for the unemployed

By Eustace Davie

July 19th 2011

The word ‘decent’ has such kindly connotations. Of course everyone wants workers to have decent wages, working conditions, hours of work and contractual arrangements with employers. When applied to jobs, ‘decent’ has a variety of meanings, depending on who does the interpreting. The standards for ‘decent jobs’ set by labour unions are based on wages, working conditions and other minimum criteria they have negotiated for their members with employers and have had written into the country’s laws and regulations: anything less is not regarded as ‘decent’.

A desperate person, especially one who has been unemployed for a long time, will have an entirely different perspective of decent work. Money to buy food for the family is likely to be a first objective, then clothing, shelter and so on, along the scale of their priorities. As long as the job is tolerable, desperate people are prepared to accept any job that enables them to make progress in obtaining as many of their priority items as possible.

Understandably, labour union leaders are determined to set the highest standards they can achieve for their members when defining what constitutes a ‘decent’ job. Around bargaining tables they hammer out the details: minimum wages, working leave periods and a great deal more, mainly with large employers, who generally prefer to negotiate with unions rather than with individual workers. Workers have every right to establish unions, appoint representatives, and have them enter into agreements on their behalf. Problems arise, however, when arrangements between large labour unions ad large employers spillover and affect non-parties to these agreements.

The current labour laws and regulations have raised a veritable ‘brick wall’ between potential employers and the unemployed. Potential employers are not prepared to wade through and bear the costs of all the compliance requirements in respect of someone with no skills, no track record, and most probably a badly eroded ‘will-to-work’ approach caused by long-term unemployment.

The most tragic consequence of the current labour dispensation is that unemployed people cannot apply their conception of what constitutes a ‘decent job’ to one that others do not consider to be ‘decent’. They cannot do that because employers face prosecution if they employ them on the basis of the applicant’s conception of ‘decent’ terms. For several years, our Foundation has been lobbying for all parties to consider allowing people who have been unemployed for six months or more (to prevent firing and re-hiring) to make agreements (that are exempt from the labour laws) with employers on mutually acceptable terms. The booklet Jobs for the Jobless: Special Exemption Certificates for the Unemployed sets out how the situation could be totally controlled if Special Exemption (SPEX) Certificates are issued to the long-term unemployed, valid for a period of two years, allowing the holders to enter into such agreements with employers on condition that the agreements are in writing.

Small firms and individuals are the most likely potential employers of SPEX certificate holders; many only marginally better off financially than their employees. Stripped of compliance costs these employers will probably pay wages to certificate holders that reasonable people would consider to be a ‘decent’ wage, given the circumstances. We are talking about ‘decent jobs’: an income, the promise of a future, the chance to feed and clothe a family. A ‘decent job’ that may not be everybody’s conception of the term but what a particular unemployed person would consider to be ‘decent’. A job that a jobless person thinks is ‘decent’ is surely better than no job at all.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and author of ‘Jobs for the Jobless: Special Exemption Certificates for the Unemployed’.

This article is syndicated through www.africanliberty.org