Kate Philip

Government is expected to revamp its expanded public works programme (EPWP) when the third phase starts in April 2014. There is no doubt the programme will continue, but officials want to increase its scale and improve its impact, says Kate Philip, adviser to the presidency on the community works programme (CWP) - one of a number of programmes that make up the EPWP.

The debate about the programme's future is taking place against the backdrop of increasing global innovation that has changed the way such programmes are used as policy instruments.

India leads the way with the world's first statutory employment guarantee. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act promises 100 days of work annually in rural areas to any household with unemployed adults. The work is offered when they want it, not when government is prepared to provide jobs.

In effect, the state acts as "employer of last resort", says Philip. The scheme began in 2005 and more than 50m households benefit each year.

Shilp Verma, of the India-based International Water Management Institute, attended a course on public employment schemes organised by the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Development Policy & Practice last week. He says annual spending on the Mahatma Gandhi programme is US$8bn-$10bn, depending on demand. "The lesson for SA is how India is able to implement on such a huge scale," Verma says.

Besides social grants, SA has battled to achieve scale in economic programmes, says Philip. "Achieving scale without losing the quality of delivery will be a big part of discussions about the EPWP's third phase."

The EPWP launched in 2004 with the aim of alleviating poverty and providing unemployed people with some income relief through short-term work - such as tidying streets, community care and basic road repairs.

The first phase of the programme, which ended in 2009, created 1,6m work opportunities - exceeding the target of 1m. The second phase, which runs from 2009 to 2014, hopes to offer 4,5m work opportunities. This equates to 2m equivalent fulltime jobs at a time when SA has 4,5m people unemployed and actively looking for work.

Philip says SA's national planning commission considered implementing an employment guarantee policy like India's. But a job guarantee raises fiscal concerns and questions about whether enough meaningful work is available at this scale.

"[The commission] recommended instead that public employment should aim to reach 50% of the unemployed, using the expanded definition," she says. "This is still an ambitious target; on current figures, it would entail reaching about 3,4m participants on an annual basis."

Public works programmes have traditionally focused on infrastructure development. But SA has expanded the programme to encompass the social sector - from caring for people with HIV/Aids to literacy programmes - in a move regarded internationally as innovative. Infrastructure, however, remains the backbone.

The public works department has allocated R1,9bn to the EPWP for 2013/2014 to create 1,2m work opportunities. This works out to 664348 full-time equivalent jobs.

Public employment programmes are not separate budget items in SA. Instead, in terms of the 2004 Division of Revenue Act, government departments are expected to provide budgeted services in more labour-intensive ways.

Questions have occasionally been asked about how the money is spent and whether enough is going to those who really need it. Philip says workers' wages declined from 27% of the EPWP's total costs in 2004/2005 to their lowest level of 5,8% in 2010/2011. They rebounded to 10,3% in 2012.

She says there has been debate over the number of jobs that are really "additional" in the EPWP's figures, and how they are differentiated from jobs that would have been created anyway. Then there is the issue of whether some infrastructure projects are reported as part of EPWP in order to benefit from the lower rates of pay for workers.

In SA, the EPWP working conditions are covered by a code of good practice agreed at Nedlac. The minimum wage, now R66,34/day, is set by ministerial determination. This is slightly below that of domestic and forestry workers, but well behind the new R105 minimum in the agricultural sector.

"The public employment programme wage level should reflect what society considers the minimum acceptable wage, but this is highly contested," says Philip, who was closely involved in piloting the CWP when it was introduced in the second phase of the EPWP.

"It was designed in response to the structural nature of unemployment in SA, and to the problem that many EPWP participants exit back into poverty after short-term employment because the economy cannot absorb them," she says.

The idea was to provide indefinite, regular work of two days a week, to contribute to the development of public assets in poor communities. The community decides what "useful" work it needs done. This is then implemented by nonprofit agencies and must have an average labour intensity (wage percentage) of 65%.

There are 74 CWP sites around the country, with more than 150000 participants. The plan is to extend the programme countrywide to at least two wards per municipality by 2014.

The EPWP programmes are often criticised for not leading to permanent jobs. But that misses the point. As the reasons for SA's high unemployment are structural, there are no jobs for participants to move into, so, instead, they exit back into poverty. However, the EPWP does have spinoffs.

Alan Hirsch, director of UCT's development policy school, says the first phase of the EPWP taught organisers that short-term work relief does not necessarily have positive long-term implications.

"A few months working on an irrigation project is not enough. You don't need to give people a lot of money but providing a longer period of support enables them to get into a better place, for example by strengthening their ability to farm or paying for public transport to get their children to school," he says.

Philip says further research is needed on the positive effects of the programme, but participants have reported a drop in alcoholism, domestic violence and involvement in crime.

The programme injects money into local communities and gives people a better understanding of formal work and their socioeconomic rights, while providing them with some skills. It also improves their self-esteem and gives them a sense they can change their own lives, says Philip.

An interesting aspect of India's programme is the impact it had on compliance with paying minimum wages. The World Bank says wages should be set at or below market rates to avoid distorting labour markets by attracting people from existing jobs. The International Labour Organisation, however, says public employment programmes should set minimum standards in wages and working conditions.

Verma says implementation of the Indian programme on such a large scale has created a wage floor. "T hough in India we have a minimum wage of $2/day, many people [ outside the programme] have been paid less than that. This programme pays the minimum wage so workers have a choice, which improves their bargaining power [ with other employers] ."

The programme has also increased participation of women in the labour force. India's constitution provides for men and women to be paid the same but, in practice, men are paid more. The public works scheme pays the same.

As long as SA struggles with high structural unemployment, public employment programmes are needed to provide a lifeline for the country's most impoverished population.