Edward Webster

Distinguished Research Professor, Southern Centre for Inequality studies, University of Witwatersand.

Brief presentation to the Kathrada Foundation, 21 st March 2020.

I will divide my brief presentation into three parts:

A. I will begin with the impact of the virus on the world of work.  It will , the ILO suggests, impact in three ways:

Firstly, there will be a rise in unemployment.  Preliminary ILO estimates indicate a rise in global unemployment of between 5.3 million (low scenario) and 24.7 million (high scenario). By the official count, 6.7-million people are unemployed in South Africa, which is 29% of everybody who could be working. By the expanded definition, more than 10 million people are unemployed, or 38.5% of people who could be working  

Secondly, the strain on income resulting from the decline in economic activity will devastate workers close or below the poverty line. By 2015, over half of all South Africans (55.5 percent), 30.4 million people, were living in poverty. Worryingly, poverty is highest among young people. There is also a sharp spatial dimension to inequality, with the food poverty line being significantly higher in the rural areas than the urban areas.

Thirdly, pandemics can have a disproportionate impact on certain segments of the population. COVI-19 is likely to increase the already high level of inequality in South Africa.  Five groups that are especially vulnerable can be identified:

  • Those who have underlying health conditions and older people are most at risk;
  • Young people, already facing higher levels of unemployment, are vulnerable:
  • Women, especially those  in occupations in  the front line of dealing with the pandemic – such as nurses and social workers. With the closure of the schools, much of the burden of care work will fall on women;
  • Those in precarious work, including the self-employed, casual and gig workers, are likely to be disproportionately hit by the virus as they do not have access to paid or sick leave; and
  • Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, facing the possibility of deportation to failed states in the region.

B. I turn now to the response of the labour movement to the pandemic.

Labour worldwide has seen the current pandemic as an opportunity to make demands on the state, often through social dialogue institutions such as NEDLAC. These calls are for government to play a more active role in improving access to health care for all. As one commentator has put it:

“The corona crisis will define our era – the pandemic has highlighted the frailties of a short-sighted and hyper-individualistic social system (Karin Pettersson, 17.03.2020).”

 Labour has supported three broad policy responses to the crisis;

  1. Firstly, the priority has been to protect the health of workers in their workplaces through two main mechanisms:
  • Supporting social distancing and hygiene procedures such as sanitizers; and
  • Encouraging flexible working arrangements, such as teleworking from home.

Some concern had been raised by the fact that working from home can lead to some employers using remote work to get workers to carry out tasks over night and over the weekends. Working from home can also impact disproportionately on women who face the additional burden of care work in the home

In some cases grandparents are being drawn in to assist in child care but this risks exposing the virus to the most vulnerable group – the elderly.

Woman often face a difficult choice; do they prioritise care of their children who have been sent home from school, or do they go to work to retain an income from their often low paid jobs?

  • The second policy response has been to call for the stimulation of the economy. Here are some of the demands:
  • Increase interest rates – of course we saw the repo rate cut by 100 points this week;
  • Financial support – appeals to postpone payment of loans, etc
  • Some have sought to follow Keynes who during the Great Depression of 1929-1932 identified aspects of the public sector and domestic economic development as a way of kick- starting the economy;
  • Indeed, some in the labour movement have seen the crisis as a turning point against globalisation and an opportunity to rebuild the industries that were lost during the highpoint of the neoliberal era of the nineties;
  • Some have gone further to call for capital controls to be introduced in emerging economies to arrest declines in currency and asset prices. The implementation of these controls, it is suggested, should be coordinated by the IMF to avoid stigma and prevent contagion.

  • The third response is to call for the retention of existing jobs and greater income security through the introduction of short time work and paid leave

         These demands have been accompanied by calls for the extension        of social protection to all – indeed prominent labour scholars have called for the introduction of an emergency universal income grant. The simplest way to introduce this is through the existing social grant system. But the problem here is that the grant system only goes to the elderly, the disabled and the mothers of children. But all workers have cell phones and the e-wallet infrastructure could be developed to introduce a universal income grant

But the crisis we face is not only about health – of course containing the virus and providing enough medical facilities is the immediate challenge – but the crisis is also a social crisis.  

C.  Let me explore in this third and final part of my in-put by looking at the social through the household.

After all the household is the place to which people are retreating – either voluntarily, or because they are being sent home. In the absence of a welfare state, the household, I suggest, is the major site for sharing economic resources such as housing and income through either wages or state grants.

But households are sites of ‘fragile stability’, Sarah Mosoetsa shows in her classic study of the South African household titled, ‘Eating from one pot’. These households are not, Mosoetsa argues, homogenous, tension-free institutions. Sharp conflicts based on gender – between men and women – on how to spend the meagre budget; and generation – between old and young on how to allocate household resources. The power struggles that surround the allocation of resources threatens the potential benefits of the household in reducing individual insecurities. It also leads to high levels of interpersonal and domestic violence.

Or, as Thabang Sefalafala demonstrates in his study of ex-mine workers in the Free State, unemployment has a profound impact on these men’s sense of self and their place in their homes and communities. They suffer stigma, diminished sense of masculine confidence, negative self-perceptions and, and above all, a sense of loss.

Let me conclude:

In his classic study of the disruptive social effects of rapid unregulated liberalisation, the economic sociologist Karl Polanyi speaks of the emergence of a counter movement for the ‘protection of society’ – what he called the double movement. In other words, as the pendulum swings towards the ‘commodification of labour, nature and money’, it provokes a strong counter movements demanding protection of society.

Of course, Polanyi was very much aware of the fact that when people are faced by insecurity and frightened, they can turn inwards, becoming xenophobic. Indeed, writing at the time of the second world war in the time of fascism, he was very much aware of the danger of right-wing authoritarianism.

But what I have identified today in the proposals of labour and the communities they are a part of, is a call for universal health care and social protection for all, the beginning of a socially inclusive counter movement. It has been brought on by the public health catastrophe of Corona-19. Importantly, the response is being led by the ANC government and supported by many employers. As the crisis deepens, government’s response has deepened; yesterday, for example, the government announced emergency price controls for toilet paper, masks and other goods. 

What is at stake, I am suggesting, is not only a health crisis; it is a crisis in the very reproduction of society itself. But it is also presents us with an opportunity to reconstruct society on more egalitarian lines. How best we, as active citizens, can and should respond to this multi-dimensional crisis, is best left to the discussion to follow.  I look forward to participating in this discussion.


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