May 3, 2004

Biggest push to create work since 1930s

Government's proposed expanded public works programme is one of the most ambitious this country has seen since the great depression of the 1930s. Government has set itself an ambitious target of spending R15bn over five years, creating about a million job opportunities through labour-intensive public works projects. The programme was conceived as a concerted attempt to address chronic unemployment and poverty. Contrary to popular misconceptions, however, there is no pot of money that will be doled out. Nor will special work-creating projects be created. The programme which kicked in from April 1 for provincial governments and which will start from July 1 for municipalities will depend on the active collaboration of the private sector for its success.

Public works department chief operating officer Sean Phillips says the R15bn budgeted for it is not an additional government allocation but a calculated figure. It represents the share of the R45bn projected infrastructure spending of provinces and municipalities over five years that could realistically be devoted to labour-intensive public works programmes. The programmes will be part of the normal infrastructure spending of these two spheres of government which will use their leverage over capital funds to oblige the private sector to adopt labour-intensive methods when fulfilling government contracts.

National government will use the mechanism of conditional grants to transfer money to provincial and local governments and so be in a position to impose the condition that the money be spent in labour-intensive ways. Provincial and municipal tenders will stipulate which contracted activities will have to be carried out by manual labour. If inspectors find out that machines are doing these tasks then the contractor will not be paid for that aspect of the contract. Equally important will be the efficient use of labour. Not all private sector contractors have experience in managing the use of labour-intensive methods. To assist them the engineering sector education and training authority will train supervisors and contractors. The construction Seta is also involved in training trainers in the industry. Many contractors and engineers, Phillips says, have expressed interest in attending the courses.

Planning is already far advanced. Four main areas of government expenditure on public works programmes have been identified infrastructure, social development, environment affairs and tourism, and the economic sector co-ordinated by their departments. Annual targets have been set for employment for each sector, and the labour department has drawn up a code of employment practice that exempts this specialised category of labour from minimum wage rates and PAYE legislation. These special conditions were negotiated and agreed on by the National Economic Development and Labour Council.

Workers will have an "entitlement to training". The labour department will use the National Skills Development Fund to train and appoint training providers. Where work is manual, requiring only on-the-job training, workers will get training in life skills and knowledge of the marketplace. A high potential for additional labour-intensive work has been identified in civil construction work of municipalities and provinces on, for example, roads, storm-water drains, water supply and reticulation. But little potential is thought to exist in an already labour-intensive building sector.

In the social sector, areas identified for labour-intensive employment are early childhood development and home-based care, both funded by conditional grants by the departments of health and education. These programmes will be consolidated and expanded and uniformity introduced across the provinces. While the private sector will employ unskilled, inexperienced labour on infrastructure development programmes, in the social sector it will be predominantly nongovernmental and community organisations that will provide more skilled job opportunities, probably for up to two years.

Environmental projects include removing alien vegetation, water and wetlands programmes and coastal care and fire protection programmes. Planning is the least developed in the economic sector. A key initiative here, Phillips says, will be the use of government expenditure on goods and services to get learner ships under way in small and medium enterprises. People will receive practical training in how to run businesses. Government expects employment levels generated by the expanded public works programme to increase as private sector capacity is built up. (The Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)

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