If there were ever a time for the “employment” part of Thulas Nxesi’s job to come into play, it would be now. The expanded unemployment rate stands at 43.1% and further job losses seem likely.
But 18 months after the mandate of “employment” was attached to his ministry, it is still not clear what this means or how the department will improve the employment rate. This has left the minister of employment and labour scrambling at the most inopportune time.
Nxesi has had his hands full with the effects of Covid-19 on the economy, which has probably had the biggest effect on the working class. The problem is that his department has failed in many ways to manage what it has been mandated to do since its inception: protect vulnerable workers.
It might have seemed that when the crisis hit, Nxesi sprang into action to ensure locked-down workers would not be left without an income. This required the mammoth task of repurposing the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) to pay out almost R50-billion.
The process was slow and often painful for both workers and their employers. From the start, many workers complained of not receiving the money. The result was discord between them and their bosses, many of whom had also not received the funds.
At the same time, workers feared that their workplaces weren’t safe and struggled to get the department to intervene when health standards weren’t complied with. And the Covid-19 regulations restricted their right to strike.
Bosses and workers complained. MPs and union leaders said their inboxes were overflowing with stories of frustration and strife. Workers could not get hold of department officials for help. When they went looking for it, offices were closed. They were ultimately forced into a Kafkaesque battle with government bureaucracy.
Faced with all these problems, fast solutions were needed. Behind the scenes, labour and civil society had to cajole the minister to act.
Although money did eventually make it into the pockets of workers, the process exposed the weak internal controls of the UIF. Money also went to the dead, prisoners and people under the working age. By October, employers had refunded R3.2-billion in overpayments.
But Nxesi has been commended for his willingness to collaborate on these issues and, ultimately, many of them were ironed out.