The 2.8-million young South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24 that were currently unemployed and also not registered with an educational institution represented a "ticking bomb" that needed to be addressed with urgency, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe warned on Friday.
Speaking at the National Economic Development and Labour Council's (Nedlac's) sixteenth annual summit in Gauteng, Motlanthe appealed to organised labour, business and community groupings to work with government to find solutions to the current low levels of labour participation generally, but youth unemployment in particular.
He said that the social partners needed to set aside their differences to address both the lack of appropriate skills among young people, as well as their depressed living conditions.
"The above statistics represent the ticking bomb that threatens to inflame pent-up emotions within the youth if not urgently addressed."
However, he made no direct reference to the controversial youth wage subsidy, which had been mooted by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, leading to an outcry from organised labour.
Nedlac labour convenor Bheki Ntshalintshali slammed those blaming South Africa's progressive labour laws for the country's growth and employment under performance. "We have fought these reactionary proposals in the past and we will continue do so," he said.
Any moves to limit collective bargaining, to introduce a two-tier labour market and, therefore, the current youth-wage subsidy proposal would be opposed by labour, he cautioned.
Congress of South Africa Trade Unions' Tony Ehrenreich indicated that labour was acutely aware of the threat posed by youth unemployment. But he said that the focus should not be a subsidy that could lead to companies swapping experienced workers with younger, cheaper workers.
Instead, greater attention should be given to further leveraging apprenticeships and learnerships to prepare young people for a role in the labour market. These individuals should also be exposed to a career path that should emerge once skills have been secured.
Community constituency convenor Thulani Tshefuta also raised its objections to the youth-wage subsidy proposal. He said such a subsidy would only serve to entrench intergenerational poverty by luring youth out of educational facilities to pursue low-paying and insecure work opportunities.
Ntshalintshali also argued that the current strength of the rand continued to raise import competition and export competitiveness, particularly in the manufacturing sector. "As labour, we maintain that no country has ever got out of a recession on the back of a strong currency and unconventional ways to manage this economy are required," Ntshalintshali said.
Business Unity South Africa CEO Nomaxabiso Majokweni, speaking on behalf of the business constituency, agreed that the focus of the social dialogue facilitated by Nedlac should be geared towards the objective of creating the 500 000 jobs a year needed to meet the New Growth Path (NGP) objectives of generating five-million jobs by 2020.
In her maiden speech as the head of a currently divided business sector, Majokweni emphasised the need for the social partners to support a more inclusive, job-rich growth agenda by fostering greater economic competitiveness, which was being eroded but the current rise in the cost of doing business in South Africa. Such competitiveness would also have to be premised on improved certainty, predictability and coordination.
Outgoing Nedlac executive director Herbert Mkhize indicated that the objective for 2011/12 would be to strengthen social dialogue in support of the NGP and the Industrial Policy Action Plan, or Ipap 2.
He also indicated that priority would be given to finalising a labour market policy review and dealing with the challenge of meeting the energy challenge.
The labour market policy review was focusing on reaching some consensus among labour, business and government on amendments to the Employment Equity Act, the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Employment Services Act.