South Africa: Labor Market Shuts Out Women

Source: Pambazuka

Not only do women experience a higher rate of unemployment compared to men, but women also make up about two of every three discouraged work seekers. The recent economic crisis has also disproportionately affected women, with the number of females who are no longer economically active rising sharply between 2008 and 2009.

South Africa’s long running problem of structural unemployment affects African women in particular. While there are no current composite statistics showing unemployment by race and gender, official data published two years ago indicated that by September 2007, the rate of unemployment among black African women was 31 percent, while for those classified as coloreds, Indians and whites, it was respectively 21 per cent, 11 per cent, and 4.5 per cent. This means that for every one white woman without a job in South Africa, there were at least seven unemployed black African women.

Lack of employment opportunities and the absence of an independent source of income means that many women are forced to rely on their spouses, immediate family members, relatives or friends for survival. Furthermore, our country’s social security system offers no form of income support to indigent people between the age of 17 and 60 years, unless they have a disability.

The fact that many women have to live off someone else has a multiplicity of negative social consequences, including the loss of independence, dignity and being forced to remain in abusive relationships.

On the other hand, while historically, the South African labor market excluded women from almost completely from participating in the economy, since 1995, slightly over two million women have found employment. A report published by the Department of Labor (DOL) a few years ago showed that the rate of women’s participation in the labor market has been significantly higher when compared with that of men.

However, these statistics can be misleading because most women workers have been absorbed in the fast growing services sector, informal work and private households. To illustrate the point, between 2004 and 2007 when the South African economy was again growing at its fastest pace since the 1970s, the number of women working in the informal sector rose by a dramatic 105,000 to 1.1 million. On the other hand, the number of men working in this sector rose by only 15,000 to 1.3 million.

Interestingly, the DOL review mentioned above argued that the highest rate of women’s participation in the labor force occurred in the 45-54 years age category due to a multiplicity of ‘push factors.’ This included more women choosing to remain longer in the labor market, women having no alternative but to stay in jobs, the need to continue to work as they become older, and the decline of female access to male income resulting from increased unemployment among males. In addition, the impact of HIV/AIDS has led to a rise in female-headed households, and consequently, more women forced to look for work in order to support their families.

Despite growing numbers of women working, gender equality is still far from being realized in the workplace. Twelve years since the passing of employment equity legislation and affirmative action measures, women continue to be seriously under-represented in the management and skilled trade categories. Women make up only 23 per cent of all employers and a mere 30 per cent of all managers in the workplace. On the other hand, almost 97 per cent of all domestic workers in South Africa are women.

For young women, pregnancy, marriage and family commitments, among other factors, have a bearing on their ability to continue with education and consequently, to find employment. The latest General Household Survey published by Statistics South Africa in September 2009 showed a considerable number of young women between the ages of 13 and 19 years who were not attending an educational institution. While lack of money was the main reason for not doing so, the reasons cited above together with failed exams were also cited as important factors.

Female unemployment is not a distinctively South African phenomenon, but it has a unique dimension in this country since race, class and gender have intersected powerfully to deny many women a foothold in the labor market. If we want to continue to develop as a country, this needs to be accounted for and factored into national economic planning.

* Kimani Ndungu is a senior researcher at the National Labour and Development Institute (NALEDI) in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

Photo from Flickr by Michiel Van Balen under a CC license