Vol.3 No.22, 04 August 2003

Livelihoods, Not Employment

Margaret Legum

If you have any sort of a heart, it is unhappy to live in Kalk Bay today. The fishing community - the heart of the village - has been devastated by the severe limitation on licenses to people already living on the edge of poverty. And it is unnecessary.

The plight of Kalk Bay fisherfolk has been wrongly diagnosed. It is not about the inevitable conflict between the need to preserve fish stocks and people's need to fish for food and sale. Of course we must limit fishing to preserve the stocks. Nor is it only about how licenses should be divided between the large companies that hoover the sea outside the Bay, because the Bay itself has an ecology of its own line-fished species.

It is about the current ideology that small business is the answer to employment. That ideology is shown in the vast application forms that line-fishing people had to fill in to get a license. They had to name the people they employ and on what terms. To get a license, in other words, you need to be a small business. This is in accordance with the current idea that small business is the answer to unemployment.

But that is not how fishing works. A person with a boat does not fish every day. S/he goes out only when conditions are right for catching the fish that are running on that day. S/he gathers a crew for that purpose, and pays them for that work. When the boats are not going out, crew members must find other employment: they are in effect self-employed.

Instead, individual line-fishers should be given a quota that they may take out of the sea, in accordance with the need to preserve stocks. People with licenses would then cooperate with each other over the use of the boats and who gets what from the catch. That would spread the effect of available fishing rights into the community. It would avoid the unrealistic idea that anyone is going to police the 'conditions of work' in the jobs that aregenerated. And it would create livelihoods rather than employment, which is currently often exploitative.

The small business focus is applied across the board regardless of conditions, because it is the answer given by economists to the world-wide loss of jobs - that is the loss of formal employment opportunities. It is mistaken - and cruelly so because it encourages people to think that somehow, if they are properly skilled, they will get a job. Economists have not yet grasped the fact that 'full employment' will never again be a feature of modern economies. The digital revolution - combined with the global market - inevitably loses more jobs than it creates. You cannot compete successfully in world markets unless you use labour-shedding technology.

Before considering alternatives, let us look at the facts. First, unemployment is world-wide; and new jobs everywhere, including the US, are casualised, low-paid, low-skilled and often temporary. They are in the catering and services sectors - waiters, check-out people, security, shelf-fillers, goffers - and they earn too little to save, to own property, to stay healthy and to educate their children.

Second therefore, with few exceptions, skills are not the problem. More education and more skills means more skilled and educated unemployed people - the current situation in the developed world. Even in SA there is an Unemployed Graduates Association. Our Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has just released a survey showing that our new Further Education and Training Colleges are 'failing' their students who are not getting jobs after graduation. 'College graduates are just some of more than a million new entrants to the labour market annually…where only a third are likely to find employment.' says HSRC research director Dr McGrath. The blame is being put on the colleges. The fault is with the economy - the lack of jobs.

Third, there is no evidence that the resources now being put into small business development pay off. It is impossible to get figures about the survival rate of supported 'start-ups': I have tried to do so both here and in the UK. But there are 7000 bankruptcies every hour in the US, where it is reckoned a person must try four times before s/he succeeds in small business. A recent SAFM John Perlman programme on small business support came up with lots of ideas but no evidence of overall success. Those registered on the SA stock market experienced a 2% negative growth between 1995 and 2000.

This failure is because of the huge benefits of scale in business. The power of size allows bulk purchase and a wipe out of smaller competition. Large business is subsidised by governments in many ways. We should stop putting our hopes where they will be dashed. Instead we should focus on livelihoods - ways that individuals and communities can use their skills to do business with each other. Giving licenses to individual fisher people is one example. Another is to fund communities to invest in their own areas, their own natural resources, their own human development.

That is the work of social entrepreneurs, not small business advisers. Social entrepreneurs enable communities to structure themselves democratically so that they are mutually accountable. Such communities are capable of making decisions about the investment of funds locally so that they create work and an income for everyone. That accords with the best principles of participatory development to which our government is rightly committed. Small business does none of that, and employs very few people even when it succeeds. It also swallows large tranches of public revenue.

Our government should commit to livelihoods, diverting funds from small business support to employment of social entrepreneurs at many levels.

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