South Africa may have to heavily rely on infrastructure projects for job creation beyond Covid-19, a joint meeting of the committees on employment and labour heard on Thursday.

The Minister of Employment and Labour, Mr Thulas Nxesi, appeared before a joint meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Employment and Labour and of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, Economic Development, Small Business Development, Tourism, Employment and Trade to present the department’s annual performance and strategic plan, as well as the plans for the Supported Employment Enterprise.

In presenting the plans, Mr Nxesi told the committees that the country would need to focus infrastructure projects to create more jobs. “The positive side of the pandemic led us to using technology; this use might be enhanced. There are opportunities which we will have to look into beyond the Covid-19 era,” Mr Nxesi said.

“The state must come and deal with mass unemployment. One of the strategies will be to formalise public employment programmes that are labour intensive. We should not always do tender.”

Members of the committees sought clarity on various issues including the possibility of drafting policy relating to the employment of foreign nationals. They also asked about the implementation of black economic empowerment codes for Covid-19 relief funds and the R350 that will be paid to unemployed South Africans, who derive no other form of benefit from government.

Mr Nxesi replied that a process to develop an employment policy and migration has started and that the department was under pressure to finalise it. “In agriculture, private security and the hospitality industry, for some reason employers have preferred to have more foreign nationals than South Africans. Some of the reasons have to do with the skills shortage and some have to do with cheap labour that could be easily exploited.”

He said South Africa has too many unemployed people to allow industries to employ non-South Africans. “There is law to deal with this and that should not be seen to be xenophobic. We should be able to protect the national interests by focussing on the citizens. This will be a balancing act,” he said.

Committee member Mr Mike Cardo had earlier sought clarity on whether the department would consider legislating the number of foreign nationals’ companies are allowed to employ beyond Covid-19. The department informed the committees that disbursing the R350 to unemployed persons was a terrain of the South African Social Security Agency, but that a database was available that would assist with the task.

Determining quotas for foreign nationals would be a ministerial issue, but that will go a long way to address the unemployment challenges. The department is looking to increase the number of employment inspectors from 170 to 670 by year-end, but the inspectors tended to leave the employ of the department to join the private sector.

The department repeated what it told the committees previously about its concerns of the possible spike in unemployment and unemployment insurance funds being under strain post Covid-19. Mr Nxesi said the R500 billion funding for Covid-19 related relief schemes would necessitate a review of the budget and plans of the department, but that was dependent on the Minister of Finance adjusting the budget first.

Co-Chairperson Ms Lindelwa Dunjwa said it looked like the committees will be forced to amend some of the regulations that govern the workplace.

Sibongile Maputi
8 May 2020