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JOBLESSNESS OP-ED

‘Job guarantee’ is the missing piece of Africa’s youth unemployment puzzle 

‘Job guarantee’ is the missing piece of Africa’s youth unemployment puzzle 
Job guarantees are an investment not only in Africa’s youth, but in the future they will inherit. (Image: iStock)

Solving Africa’s youth unemployment problem cannot be left to markets alone. It is time for a radical rethink. 

Holding claim to the world’s most youthful population – around 60% below 25 – Africa faces a major challenge: securing decent and fairly paid work for its rapidly growing young workforce.  

This is no mean feat. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in working hour losses equivalent to 13.5 million full-time jobs on the continent – pushing more than 4.9 million workers and their families into extreme poverty. While some countries fare better than others, Africa as a whole still lags behind other parts of the world in its employment recovery from the crisis. 

At the same time, much of the work that does exist is in the informal economy – 83% of all African employment, according to the International Labour Organisation – characterised by low wages and miserable working conditions that keep workers, and their families, trapped in poverty, driving many young people to leave the continent in search of better futures elsewhere. 

Getting young Africans into work is clearly a policy priority for governments across the continent, yet the tendency has been to rely on economic growth to do so. While many economies on the continent are indeed growing, the pace of growth has been unable to address the scale of need and has often been jobless growth

Solving Africa’s youth unemployment puzzle cannot be left to markets alone. It is time for a radical rethink. 

Time for a job guarantee 

A new UN report on employment guarantees by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights urges the world’s governments to guarantee a decent, socially useful job at a living wage to anyone willing and able to work. This is the idea of a job guarantee.  

Taking this approach could effectively eradicate unemployment, reshaping labour markets in profound ways that remove desperation from the equation. Who would opt to accept poor pay and precarious conditions if the right to a decent alternative existed? 

In South Africa, the opportunity to scale up decent public employment came about in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Presidential Employment Stimulus was launched in October 2020 to buffer the employment impacts of the pandemic and has since supported nearly 1 million jobs in the country, mostly for youth and women. 

Its largest programme – the biggest youth employment programme in South Africa’s history – currently places around 250,000 young people a year as school assistants in more than 23,000 schools. These young people support teachers in the classroom, undertake administration, IT, maintenance and after-school activities. 

Jobs have also been created in early childhood development, informal settlement upgrading, food security initiatives, climate change projects and more – with the social and economic benefits felt across entire communities.

It can’t be left to markets alone 

Of course, there are costs associated with implementing a job guarantee. But this investment should be assessed against the huge costs of unemployment. Youth unemployment has corrosive impacts that extend far beyond not having an income: the physical and mental health harm, the stigma that comes with not having a job, the impact of unemployment on social cohesion and wellbeing. The list goes on. 

If private sector markets alone cannot create the jobs young people deserve, then it is in the interests of societies – and their economies – to find other ways to do so. The job guarantee is the missing piece to this puzzle. 

Job guarantees allow policy makers to take matters into their own hands, by providing jobs that not only offer economic security, but also help tackle the many challenges facing communities and society at large.

They are an investment not only in Africa’s youth, but in the future they will inherit. DM 

Olivier de Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Kate Philip is the Programme Lead on South Africa’s Presidential Employment Stimulus.

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