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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


BLAAUW, Derick; YU, Derek  e  SCHENCK, Rinie. COVID-19 and day labourers in the South African economy: The impact on their lives and livelihoods. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2021, vol.61, n.4-2, pp.1219-1234. ISSN 2224-7912.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is currently reverberating throughout the South African economy - including the informal economy and those on the brink of the formal economy, such as day labourers. Even before the start of the pandemic, the South African economy was already in an extremely vulnerable position due to a number of multidimensional factors, for example the global financial crisis of 2008 as well as a decade of corruption and looting of state resources. Day labourers are particularly vulnerable to exogenous shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this background, the aim of the overview study was to place the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the living conditions of informal workers such as day labourers on the research agenda. The methodology was twofold. Firstly, the only available nationally representative database from a study by Blaauw (2010) on activities of day labourers in South Africa was used as a summary starting point with regard to the socio-economic position of day labourers. Secondly, in the second part of the analysis we used the latest available research information on changes in the day labour market to identify the factors that have changed the socio-economic conditions of day labourers in South Africa in the last decade. The possible short-, medium- and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was discussed against this background. The results of the starting point analysis among day labourers in South Africa confirm that in 2008 the day labourers in the Western Cape and Gauteng were comparatively better off than the day labourers in some of South Africa's less prosperous provinces. Their wages were higher in all the income variables that were part of the study. Despite this relatively better situation, even day labourers in the strongest possible position were still vulnerable with low and uncertain income levels, the risk of not always being able to provide for them and their dependants' needs, and an inability to plan ahead as a precaution against future exogenous economic shocks. These shocks did indeed come. Since 2008, macroeconomic shocks such as the global financial crisis and a declining mining and construction industry have put the day labour market under further pressure. A decade of looting and mismanagement of the South African economy as well as a third wave of cross-border migration led to a further deterioration of the day labour market's ability to meet the material needs of tens of thousands of day labourers in South Africa. Increased unemployment as well as declining real and reservation wages among day labourers occurred across all provinces in South Africa, and studies in East London, Tshwane, Emalahleni, Mbombela, Cape Town andPaarl clearly show the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions of day labourers in the last decade (Theodore, Pretorius, Blaauw & Schenck, 2018; Mapendere, 2019; Xweso, 2019; Schenck, Blaauw & Matthee, 2020; Smith, 2020). Day labourers' vulnerability has therefore deteriorated dramatically since 2008 and the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect storm in the day labour market. The COVID-19 pandemic has left tens of thousands of day labourers facing the real prospect of economic hardship and starvation and a desperate need for help. Day labourers are in fact worse off than the informal self-employed, such as informal reclaimers, who have at least a voice through industry organisations such as Plastics SA, the South African Waste Pickers Association or the African Reclaimers Organisation. The South African Government has announced measures to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. Theoretically, many of the day labourers could have benefitedfrom the COVID-19 Social Emergency Relief Grant of R350per month that has been paid to the unemployed since President Ramaphosa's announcement on 21 April 2020. However, this payment came to an end in April 2021. The short-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on informal workers and day labourers was therefore nothing short of catastrophic. In the medium term, further pressure is likely to be put on the day labour market due to the many people who have lost or are about to lose their formal jobs because of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A resultant oversupply of day labourers will have a further devastating effect on day labourers' lives and livelihoods - even after the pandemic has been brought under control. Day labourers' reservation wages will be pushed even lower due to day labourers' desperation to be able to work at all. This negative impact could be further exacerbated in the long run as thousands of pupils, who are currently dropping out of school in the midst of the pandemic, will have no choice (other than crime) but to turn to the informal day job market. The situation in the day labour market is therefore already critical and can only have further devastating consequences for the social order and social cohesion in South Africa. South African society urgently needs to reflect on these issues. The riots and looting in July 2021 are prima facie proof that the social order is already under tremendous pressure. Academics also have a role to play in the process of reflection and reconsideration. There is an urgent needfor nationwide research on the day labour market and other forms of informal employment and self-employment. New nationwide data (using a similar methodology), as well as other forms of participatory research, are needed to gain an understanding of the impact of the events of the past ten years on the lives and livelihoods of informal wage earners. A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic has once again highlighted the plight of the marginalised and vulnerable in South Africa's unequal society.

Palavras-chave : informal economy; part-time employment; day labourers; exogenous shocks; COVID-19; immigrants; South Africa; unemployment; structural vulnerability; social justice.

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