February 2020


  1. Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Fundamental Tension in Governing China, Says Stanford Sociologist and China Expert Xueguang Zhou
  2. Inequality Tour: The Real-life Sights of South Korea's Oscar-winning 'Parasite'
  3. The rise of the digital economy and tech-driven inequality
  4. Mexico's new minimum wage: Thanks for trying
  5. South Africans describe the pain of unemployment
  6. What happens to class conflict in the fight against inequality?

Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Fundamental Tension in Governing China, Says Stanford Sociologist and China Expert Xueguang Zhou

By            :               Noa Ronkin

Date         :               February 3, 2020

Source     :               Stanford University (https://fsi.stanford.edu/news/coronavirus-crisis-exposes-fundamental-tension-governing-china-says-stanford-sociologist-and)


Organizational sociology may not be the first academic field people tend to look to for an explanation of the origins of a public health crisis such as the spreading Wuhan coronavirus, but from the perspective of Stanford sociologist and APARC faculty member Xueguang Zhou, who specializes in institutional change in contemporary Chinese society, the writing on the wall has long been there for all to see. Zhou, who is also Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic Development and senior fellow at FSI, studies Chinese organizations, Chinese state building, and Chinese bureaucracy. His work sheds light on the characteristics of and tensions in governing China, and is pertinent to understanding the unfolding of the coronavirus crisis and the Chinese government’s response to it.

In the following interview, Zhou talks about these issues, his research into the institutional foundations of governance in China, and some of the challenges the country now faces. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The death toll from the coronavirus continues to rise in mainland China along with anger over the government’s response to the outbreak. What are the implications of this crisis for Chinese governance?

This is not only an outbreak of a novel virus, it's also a manifestation of the breakdown of China’s governance structures. The crisis has exposed the cracks in the system. Granted, any government might be underprepared to handle an outbreak of a new epidemic. However, based on what we now know, the new virus strain was detected in Wuhan some weeks before the beginning of the outbreak, yet the bureaucracies at several levels didn’t work and the authorities involved were not put into high alert.

I wouldn’t place the blame on the local officials, who have followed the same old pattern of crisis response. For both cultural and political reasons, their primary concern was to lie low and keep things stable just weeks before the Chinese New Year and in the lead-up to the annual gatherings of the Provincial People’s Congress. That pattern of response has been built into the Chinese bureaucracy for years. But in this case, the default behavior exposed the weaknesses of the central and local governments. We can imagine similar scenes of health crises and other problems happening in other Chinese provinces and cities, because the officials have similar mentalities. The problem is not with individual officials here or there, but rather that the general bureaucracy has been tamed to respond to such dissonant information in this manner.

I hope that this crisis becomes a turning point; that the gravity of the situation touches people's lives deeply enough to make them aware of the kind of conditions that need to be transformed. I hope it makes them realize that the government must improve its decision-making process, transparency, and openness to societal input. The present system of governance in China is designed for top-down decision implementation, not bottom-up information pooling and transmission. Therefore, even though information is abundant — as has been the case with the coronavirus — there is no efficient information transfer from localities to the upper levels. And the latter cannot deal with the load of information coming from the country’s vast territory and huge, heterogeneous population. In fact, top officials tried to shield themselves and filter information instead of open up to input the scale of which they cannot deal with.

Q: Since the coronavirus broke out, there has been a surge of interest in your research on Chinese governance. Tell us more about that.  

For more than ten years, I have been doing fieldwork in China and publishing my writings on that topic in Chinese. In 2017, I published a collection of essays in a volume whose English translation is The Institutional Logic of Governance in China: An Organizational Approach. The book’s theme is the relationship between China’s central government and different levels of local government with regards to various governance issues. That relationship is fraught with frictions in and challenges for governing China, which the coronavirus crisis has now exposed.

Within six months of publication, the book was “unshelved” in China and reprint was prohibited. The publisher returned the copyrights to me. So I made a digital version of it available for free download. Since the coronavirus broke out, within a few days, references to the book have been shared on Chinese social media platform Weibo nearly 4,000 times. This set of issues that I have been discussing for more than a decade has suddenly become highly relevant. On the one hand, I am sad about this turn of events: sometimes you don't want your predictions to come true. Yet I also feel vindicated. That is to say, for the longest time, I have been studying something that I thought was fundamental yet never fully understood, and now suddenly the lines of argument I developed over the years are circulating broadly and having impact. I am working on an English translation of the book.

Q: You describe a fundamental tension in governing China. What is this tension and how is it manifested?

Given the formidable scale of governance in China, the centralization of authority inevitably introduces a separation between policymaking at the center and policy implementation at local levels. This separation gives rise to a fundamental tension between the centralization of authority and effective, local governance. The source of the tension is this: the extent of the centralization of authority is achieved at the expense of the effectiveness in local governance. That is, the centralization of authority places decision rights and resources further away from those levels that have more accurate information and capacities in problem solving. Conversely, the strengthening of local governance capacities implies the expansion of local authority, which often leads to (or is interpreted as) deviation from the center, thereby becoming an acute threat to the central authority.

Over the last several years under the new leadership, China has undergone tremendous consolidation and centralization of political power. And that's what made local governments paralyzed. They lack autonomy and initiative and shun responsibility. One outcome is that information is filtered or being blocked from one level of governance to another. Problems arise every day and never make it into media or public attention: there are accidents, crimes, corruption, and people protest, but we never hear of that. The coronavirus outbreak is one extreme case that the authorities simply cannot hide, and, temporarily, we hear more voices and criticism via social media and other informal channels.

It is my hope that this crisis will be a turning point and make Chinese society realize that information, and efficient information sharing is critical for its well-being. From time to time, I post book reviews, commentary, and my thoughts on various topics via a personal page on Weibo. A while ago, I posted my reflections after watching the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, considering the failures that caused the Chernobyl disaster from the perspective of organizational sociology. And those are all information failures. There are many parallels to what has now happened in Wuhan. Since the virus outbreak, this post of mine has been shared many times in China, in social media and various other channels.

Q: What are the implications of this fundamental tension between the centralization of authority and effective governance for China’s future?

This tension creates cycles of centralization and decentralization over time. Decentralization gives rise to diverse interests and propels economic developments in different parts of the country. Indeed, China’s decades of economic rise and reforms were marked by tremendous decentralization. It’s what made China so successful. But decentralization poses a threat to the central authority, so it reverts back to power consolidation, such as we have observed over the last several years under the new leadership.

Then again, the more resources and decision rights are centralized upward, the lower is the effectiveness of governance at local levels. This is manifested in the form of lack of initiative by local governments, which, in turn, creates burden on the central government. China’s economic slowdown has already been putting tremendous pressure on the central government and now, with the scramble to contain the spread of the coronavirus, China’s economy is virtually grinding to a halt. Economic stagnation is almost inevitable, the questions are how severe it will be and how long it will take to recover from it.

I therefore believe it is only a matter of time until China goes through yet another phase of decentralization, but that will most likely be merely another part of a perpetual cycle. The cycle will continue unless China’s challenges are translated into political action and fundamental changes are made to the institutional foundations of governance. Such changes, however, will involve the Chinese bureaucracy and official ideology and are unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Q: What are some of the findings from your research into the Chinese bureaucracy?

Over the last decade, I have been conducting fieldwork and studying the inner workings of the Chinese bureaucracy in action: observing how local officials behave in problem solving, crises management, policy implementation, and interact with both higher authorities and lower-ranking bureaucrats. I have developed theoretical models and arguments about how the Chinese state has been organized and how it operates both at the local levels (bottom-up perspective) and central level (top-down perspective).

As part of that project, I have been studying patterns of career mobility among bureaucrats in the Jiangsu Province, which has the second largest economy in China, just behind Shanghai. I now have a dataset encompassing half a million records on more than 40,000 officials, detailing their career flows from 1990 to 2013. This project sheds light on many important issues related to the Chinese bureaucracy and governance in China. For example, the dual authority between the party and government lines is a defining feature of the party-state in China. We can examine the key characteristics of this phenomenon through the lens of personnel management, that is, how officials are moving through different positions between the party and government. We have a paper forthcoming on this topic.

Another line of research in this project is what I call “stratified spatial mobility,” meaning a pattern whereby just a handful of officials are able to move beyond the administrative jurisdiction along the bureaucratic ladder into the immediate next higher-level administrative jurisdiction, whereas most officials stay within their own jurisdiction for life. It’s polarized mobility, in stark contrast between spatial mobility and local mobility. That’s why in each locality there are dense social networks and strong boundaries. This type of stratified mobility in the Chinese bureaucracy has huge consequences for understanding how China is governed. For example, local networks fiercely protect each other and have strong ties with those officials at an immediate authority, resulting in collusion among local governments when they respond to crises or interact with higher authorities. The failure to keep the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak from becoming an epidemic is a case in point. So we opened this conversation with the coronavirus and end it with the same topic.

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Inequality Tour: The Real-life Sights of South Korea's Oscar-winning 'Parasite'

By            :                Reuters

Date         :               February 12, 2020

Source     :               Voice of America (https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/inequality-tour-real-life-sights-south-koreas-oscar-winning-parasite)


SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - From the houses to the noodles, South Korea's Oscar winning movie "Parasite" tells its story of a suffocating class struggle through the sights and smells of Seoul.

"Parasite" made history as the first non-English language movie to win the Oscar for best picture on Sunday, prompting South Korean social media to erupt in celebration.

It is a tale of two South Korean families - the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims - mirroring the deepening disparities in Asia's fourth-largest economy and striking a chord with global audiences.

The visual clues in the film resonated with many South Koreans who identify themselves as "dirt spoons", those born to low-income families who have all but given up on owning a decent house and social mobility, as opposed to "gold spoons", who are from better-off families.

Much of the movie was shot on purpose-built sets, but both the Parks' mansion and the Kims' squalid "sub-basement" apartment were inspired by, and set, amid real neighborhoods in the South Korean capital.

A tour of the film's locations, props, and backdrops reveals the unique meanings they have for many South Koreans as they engage in their own debates about wealth - and the lack of it.

Shanty town

Ahyeon-dong is one of the last shanty towns near downtown Seoul and made an appearance in several scenes depicting the Kims' humble neighborhood. Perched on a hillside near the main train station, Ahyeon-dong is a warren of steep, narrow streets, many of which end in long staircases that residents climb to reach their homes.

"Watching the film made me feel like they put my life right in there," said Lee Jeong-sik, the 77-year-old co-owner of Pig Rice Supermarket, which is featured in the film. Kim Kyung-soon, 73, who has operated the shop with her husband Lee for 45 years, said she opens the supermarket at around 8:30 a.m., while he closes it down after midnight.

She used to open the store even earlier, at 5 a.m., for mothers who would stop by early to buy school lunch fixings for their children. Now, however, the neighborhood is mostly older people, with few young couples or children, Kim said.

The film's fictional Kim family live in a "sub-basement", usually small, dark apartments built partially underground.

Residents said rent for the sub-basement apartments had increased to around 400,000 won ($340) per month, more than doubling in the past decade.

Ahyeon-dong sits in the shadow of newly built apartment towers, and the city has faced protests from some residents who fear losing their homes to redevelopment.

"It’s definitely a neighborhood that isn’t faring well," Lee said. When he heard that "Parasite" had won at the Academy Awards he was so happy he could not sleep. As a throng of media gathered outside his shop, he wondered whether the film's fame would change plans to eventually build new apartments there.

Seoul's Beverly Hills

In contrast, the scenes around the wealthy Parks' home - which itself was a movie set built elsewhere - were filmed in Seongbuk-dong, known as South Korea's Beverly Hills and home to many business families and diplomatic residences.

Unlike Ahyeon-dong, the streets in Seongbuk-dong are clear of rubbish and almost silent, with most homes hidden behind high walls, spiked fences, and security cameras.

"The houses here are all very fancy residences," said Chung Han-sool, CEO of Peace Estate Agents. "Most of the houses have basements and they use it for home bars or mini theaters."

According to real estate brokers, homes there usually cost around 7 billion won ($6 million). Those rented to foreign diplomats are offered for 10 milllion-15 million won ($8,500 to $12,725) per month.

"There are 48 ambassadors living in the neighborhood, so there is a whole separate squad of police officers in the area," Chung said.

Even within Seongbuk-dong the disparity is highlighted by the "gisasikdang" or "drivers' diners", similar to one featured in "Parasite". Gisasikdang sprung up to serve meals to drivers, including those ferrying the area's wealthy residents.

"There are taxi, bus drivers and those who drive the CEOs who live around here," said Bae Sun-young, a manager at a gisasikdang in Seongbuk-dong. "The wealth is so polarized here. It’s extreme."

Tasty symbolism

As news of the Oscar wins spread, South Korean social media burst with photos and recipes of "jjapaguri", a combination of two different instant noodles translated in the movie as "ram-dong" (ramen plus udong).

The dish initially became popular as everyday food due to a television show but got a boost from the film, which added a satirical twist as the Parks top it with expensive Korean beef. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris even tweeted with an image of jjapaguri cup noodles, saying the embassy was hosting a party to watch the awards ceremony.

Standing in the cramped aisles of Pig Rice Supermarket in Ahyeon-dong, Lee noted that the residents' economic status was reflected in what they bought.

"People are not well off here," he said. "What they buy most is ramen and alcohol."

The other supermarket that makes an appearance in "Parasite" is ORGA Whole Foods in Bangi-dong, a trendy neighborhood in Seoul that is popular with upper-middle class families who want to send their children to top elementary and middle schools.

"The most popular items in our store aren’t cigarettes, alcohol or instant food like in regular supermarkets," Ryu Hee-woong, a manager at the branch, said.  "Our customers usually purchase fresh food that is focused on safety, sustainability, and eco-friendliness."

($1 = 1,179.2300 won)

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The rise of the digital economy and tech-driven inequality

Can the tech revolution be an equaliser instead? UNESCAP’s Jonathan Wong thinks so


By            :               Jonathan Wong

Date         :               Feburary 10, 2020

Source     :               Channel News Asia (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/inequality-technology-automation-work-workers-asia-singapore-12309370)

BANGKOK: Back in 2015, the member-states of the United Nations adopted its most ambitious, all-encompassing agenda ever attempted: To guide the advancement of humankind for the next 15 years.

Collectively known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the agreements called on all countries to positively advance economies, societies and the environment.

An overarching principle of these agreements was to “leave no one behind”. However, currently in the Asia-Pacific region, we are. Inequality is on the rise.


Since the early 1990s, the Asia-Pacific region has experienced a tremendous socio-economic transformation, facilitated by strong and sustained economic growth.

Unfortunately, the gains from this remarkable performance have not always benefited those most in need.

The region’s combined income inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, has increased by over 5 percentage points in the last 20 years. Income inequality has grown in almost 40 per cent of all countries.


Could technology be part of the solution? In 2015 the answer was emphatically yes. Back then, technology was heralded as key accelerator to meet the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses, technologies - such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things - are reshaping our economies, societies and the environment.

Digital trade and finance are opening economic opportunities through financial inclusion. For example, innovations such as Aadhaar - the digital identification system in India - have enabled the financial inclusion of 1.2 billion people.

From a social perspective, digital healthcare and education are providing cost-effective solutions to people in rural communities.

However, the wave of optimism surrounding the transformative potential of frontier technologies has been tempered by increasing concerns about potential negative impact, the future of work being the one gaining most attention.


As the Chief of Technology and Innovation at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, my role is to provide policy advice to governments on what they should do.

To many whom I meet, government and innovation is somewhat of an oxymoron. However, history has shown us that the state is more entrepreneurial than we think.

The economist Marianna Mazzucato brought this to light when analysing Apple’s iPhone and Google’s search engine. Both these innovations benefited from state intervention.

For the iPhone, many of the technologies – such as GPS, the touchscreen, and Siri – were funded by the US government. Equally for Google, the creation of its algorithm was funded by the National Science Foundation.

And, of course, there’s the Internet, another government funded technology, which backs up both these products.

However, in Asia, the current technological revolution is accelerating at an exponential pace, fuelled by private sector investment, particularly from the tech titans. Will these companies protect workers likely to be displaced by more productive machines? Will they develop cost-effective technologies for the very poorest people to benefit?

In a market system where maximising shareholder wealth is king, the answer is maybe not. So, what could governments do to manage this technological transition?


Already we are seeing bold, innovative and practical policy responses to this challenge.

In Bangladesh, the government has committed to embracing this new direction and has made digitisation a national priority. The government has also called for greater digital skills development of the youth to ensure their employability in any industry.

The Government of Singapore offers adults personal SkillsFuture credit accounts which they can use to buy training.

It also uses a mix of grant programmes and tax incentives to encourage firms to invest more in low-wage workers, those most at risk from technological job displacement.

Governments in the region are also strengthening their social protection systems to protect the workers that are vulnerable to job loss.

In my mind, the biggest innovation that could mitigate tech-driven inequality happens when businesses ingrain social purpose and inclusion into the heart of their business models alongside profit objectives.

Governments in Asia have been at the forefront of policy development on this agenda. As examples, the Social Enterprise Act in Thailand provides support to enterprises with a core social objective, while in the Philippines, an inclusive business accreditation system has been developed – the first of its kind in the world - which provides tax incentives to business that provide valuable goods and services at affordable prices to poor and low-income people.


While it is still too early to assess the impact of these policies, it is encouraging to see governments innovating in this space.

As to whether these policies will move the needle in terms of transitioning from traditional to more inclusive and “impactful” economies, only time will tell. It’s important to note that economies are only at the start of this impact journey.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution evolves, the number and power of tech companies will inevitably increase.

As we enter the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, policies that incentivise them to do good as well as do well, and put inclusion at the heart of their business models, may just be an evolution in thought, but could be the revolution in impact we need, as we strive to mitigate the potential inequalities that technology could exacerbate.

In March 2020, the inaugural CNA Digital Economy Leadership Summit 2020 will bring together some 200 key decision makers from Government, diplomatic circles and the private sector from around Asia, to explore key issues that include: How to grow and innovate in a digital economy, as well as how to manage talent and ensure sustainability in the digital economy. 

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Mexico's new minimum wage: Thanks for trying

Mexico's minimum wage earners make less than their peers in Brazil and Colombia, where per capita income is similar.


By            :               Suman Naishadh

Date         :               February 1, 2020

Source     :               Aljezeera (https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/mexico-minimum-wage-200131185357244.html)


Mexico City, Mexico - Some of Mexico's lowest-paid earners are experiencing their second pay rise in as many years.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lifted the minimum wage this year by 20 percent for workers in most parts of the country, following a 16 percent hike in 2019. Those earning the minimum wage in Mexico now make 123.22 pesos, or about $6.53 a day.

Lopez Obrador's administration, which rose to power in 2018 under a pledge to tackle corruption and inequality, says 3.4 million wage earners will benefit from the pay increase. It has heralded the move as a historic measure to offset decades of dismal wages in Mexico. "We haven't seen something like this in four decades," Lopez Obrador told journalists when he announced the pay rise.

But the impact of Lopez Obrador's decision appears limited. Factors such as Mexico's outsized informal economy, a historically depressed minimum wage, and persistently low wages in formal jobs mean the pay hike leaves much of Mexico's working poor untouched. And the change has little potential to lift minimum wage earners out of poverty.

"In terms of reducing poverty, I don't think it will be all that important," says Valeria Moy, an economist at a think-tank in Mexico City called Mexico, Como Vamos? (How Are We Doing, Mexico?).

Informal economy

Meager wages and common hiring practices such as employing workers under short-term contracts, or underreporting income for tax purposes, help keep Mexico's informal economy especially large, Moy says. Fifty-six percent of Mexico's workforce is informal, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).

Jose Rodriguez, 38, works on a construction site near one of Mexico City's main arteries, Paseo de la Reforma. Originally from the southeast state of Veracruz, he said he earns 150 pesos a day or around $8. Rodriguez has worked in construction in the Mexican capital for six years, always under short contracts, jumping from one project to another every few months.

"It's not enough," Rodriguez says of his earnings. In six years, he says, he has never received benefits such as medical care or social security because of the short-term nature of his work. Rodriguez, like many other Mexicans, earns $1 above the minimum wage. His wage did not rise at the start of the year.

In 2019, Mexico doubled the minimum wage along the northern border region, where now it is 185.56 pesos or around $9.90 per day. But in the rest of the country, even after the recent jump, Mexico's minimum wage earners make less than their counterparts in Brazil and Colombia, countries with similar per capita income.

Indexing minimum wage

For decades, Mexico's minimum wage was capped so it rose in sync with inflation. That was in part because the minimum wage, starting in the 1980s, was tied to the amount people paid in fines along with what they received in housing credits, social security, and other social services, says David Kaplan, a labor economist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Some economists warn that sudden or frequent hikes in the minimum wage can result in what's known as "wage push inflation", as employers raise the prices of goods and services to offset the increased cost of paying salaries. Despite worries that Lopez Obrador's previous 16 percent increase to the minimum wage would do just that, Mexico's inflation dropped to 2.83 percent in 2019, a four-year low, according to INEGI.

"I think it's overblown," Kaplan says about fears that this year's hike to the minimum wage could spark high inflation. "Recent experience suggests the impact is quite low," he says.

"I see the recent pay increases as positive, but they can't be replicated forever," Moy says.

Runaway inflation in Mexico in the 1980s spooked officials away from raising the minimum wage when it was indexed to services. The government kept the minimum wage low for years and it stayed there, Kaplan says. Then in 2016, a constitutional reform divorced the minimum wage from social services and fines. The government began increasing the wage.

"The question is," Kaplan says, "once inflation was under control, why wasn't it increased?"

Persistent low wages

Persistent low wages in formal jobs are one reason economists say more than half of Mexico's workforce remains under the table, peddling goods in outdoor markets called tianguis, selling food at streetside stalls, or working in small business often consisting of just a handful of people. While these jobs do not provide state-mandated benefits such as health insurance, in some cases, the pay beats that of formal-sector alternatives.

More than 17 million formal workers in Mexico earned between one and two times the minimum wage last year, according to INEGI. And many Mexican workers jump between the formal and informal economies throughout their working lives, Moy says.

In Mexico City's crowded Zocalo Square, Raul Maisano, 33, mans a magazine stand offering up newspapers, cigarettes and soft drinks to the historic centre's many passersby. Maisano, who works off the books for the stall's owner, says he makes more than the minimum wage at 200 pesos a day or $10.60, without benefits. It's not a lot, he says, but it's enough to rent a room in neighbouring Mexico State and commute one and a half hours to work every day. When sales are up, Maisano says he makes a little extra.

"It doesn't bother me that I don't have health insurance," Maisano adds. "It's not a good service anyway."

For others, informal work provides its own set of benefits. On a recent weekday afternoon, Jonathan Mateos, 22, drizzled Valentina hot sauce into clear plastic bags of chips, selling them to an impatient crowd of office workers near Mexico's commercial downtown. Each bag goes for just 15 to 30 pesos, or around $1, yet Mateos says he makes on average 500 pesos, or around $27, a day - over four times as much as the new minimum wage earners. Some days, he estimates, he takes home as much as 1,500 pesos or $80 at the day's end.

Mateos, who works with his two older brothers, says he has never held a formal job. He has never wanted one, he said.

"Since I was a boy, I've run a business," he says. For now, Mexico's new minimum wage won't change that.

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South Africans describe the pain of unemployment

By            :               Melinda Du Toit

Date         :               February 13, 2020

Source     :               The Conversation (http://theconversation.com/south-africans-describe-the-pain-of-unemployment-130250)


Unemployment has both individual and social consequences that require public policy interventions. For the individual, unemployment can cause psychological distress, which can lead to a decline in life satisfaction. It can also lead to mood disorders and substance abuse. Unemployment can affect one’s social status ascription as well, which manifests through stigmatisation, labelling, unfair judgement, and marginalisation.

Both these consequences can be mitigated through public policy interventions such as social support for the unemployed, but the design of such interventions can be limited by the lack of a detailed understanding of the consequences of being unemployed. Most of the studies on unemployment experiences have been done in developed countries, with relatively few in Africa.

We sought to study the experiences of unemployed individuals in two South African townships. The aim of the study was to provide preliminary data for use in developing an intervention programme for the unemployed in Orange Farm and Boipatong, 45 km and 60 km, respectively, outside the economic hub of Johannesburg.

Both communities are characterised by high levels of poverty and unemployment, the remnants of the spatial inequality of the country’s racial past. Our research was guided by the quest to record the experiences of unemployed South Africans who live in a poor neighbourhood. South Africa has a very high unemployment rate of 29.1%. The national average belies the deepness of unemployment in certain parts of the country. In some communities, it is as high as 60%.

Since 2014, I have been working on community projects in Orange Farm and Boipatong in collaboration with community leaders. Our participants have typically been unemployed for six months or more. We used pseudonyms for the participants, who were aged between 20 and 64 years at the time of the study. The chosen pseudonyms brought a smile to their faces, providing a lot of light-hearted conversations at the beginning of the interviews. They chose pseudonyms that included Ms Rihanna, Ms Sunshine, Mr Star, and Mr Zionist.

The moment they shared their experiences about their daily living as unemployed individuals, however, the feeling of despair was almost tangible. They described unemployment using negative descriptions such as “a huge garbage heap filled with bad things”, “life is over”, “danger and death”, “a man-made grave”, and “a monster”. One young participant explained that unemployment brought “a black heart full of sorrow and pain; the heart is broken, angry, sore and sad”. The words “pain” and/or “sad” were used by eight of the 12 participants.

The study had its limitations. It was exploratory and conducted in two communities, so we could gain an initial understanding of the experiences of the unemployed. Much of the context, including the respondents’ families and the perception of the broader society, was raised during the interviews. We also did not do follow-up interviews to explore more deeply issues such as the impact of negative self-stereotyping on the expectations of finding a job.

What stood out

We analysed the data looking at the questions that described the experience of being unemployed. A few aspects stood out.

  • Unemployment was an extremely negative experience for all the participants. It was associated with stress, depression, and anxiety. Feelings of anger came out very strongly. Participants’ anger was mainly directed at the government. They pinned their unemployment on government’s failure to reform the economy to address the unfairness of South Africa’s past racial policies. They described nepotism, favouritism, and other forms of corruption by government officials as contributing to unemployment. Seeing their families, especially their children, suffering and not getting any assistance, either from businesses, government, or non-governmental organisations, angered the participants. They described their communities as filthy, painful, sad places that had been forgotten. They also had dilapidated infrastructure. The townships offered no job opportunities. They were far removed from the country’s economic hubs, making it that much more difficult for the unemployed to find work.
  • Most of the participants regarded their township environment and their immediate neighbourhoods as unsupportive, adding to their negative experiences of being unemployed. They reported experiences of stigmatisation and shame because they believed that society perceived them as not honestly trying their best to find work. This finding is well supported by the literature. The participants explained how they were judged harshly by their community members, who described them as “lazy and do not want to work”. Community members were also prejudiced: “When something is stolen, they look at us who are unemployed and believe we steal and cheat.” Participants suffered negative social labelling:

The others still call me a boy, because I cannot provide for my family.

Greater understanding

As these findings show, a lack of social support by the community and public social welfare agencies make the experiences of the unemployed worse. Public policy interventions are required to help connect unemployed people to job networks. There is also a role for public policy to help them deal with the stigma and all the other negative stereotypes associated with unemployment. Psychologists and social scientists can assist people to cope with unemployment as well as improve their psychological wellness, but designing such interventions requires a greater understanding of the experiences of the unemployed.


Melinda Du Toit Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg

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What happens to class conflict in the fight against inequality?

By            :               Annalisa Merelli

Date         :               February 9, 2020

Source     :               Quartz (https://qz.com/1796276/what-happens-to-class-conflict-in-the-fight-against-inequality/)


The numbers of wealth inequality in 2020 are striking: 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people, which means there is more wealth in the hands of 0.00003% of the world population than in 60% of it. In the US, where the highest number of billionaires live, the disparity between the ultra rich and everyone else is at a five-decade high: The richer 0.1% earn almost 200 times as much as the remaining 90%.

Since the 2008 recession and, shortly after, the inequality protests of Occupy Wall Street, the idea that the world—and chiefly, America—has an inequality problem has gotten into the mainstream, and become a key programmatic point of progressives.

A wealth tax has widespread support amongst Americans of various political leanings; meanwhile, conservatives decry it as an attempt to have the US capitulate to socialism.

But who is the fight against inequality and for income redistribution going to benefit? According to the Economic Policy Institute, as of 2018 the threshold to qualify to the 1% was about $421,000 a year. This means that someone making $400,000 a year and someone making $20,000 a year both belong to the 99%, while surely their lives and struggles are not alike.

Is it fair to group together all these income brackets, or is the fight of everyone against the ultra-rich helping the elite (albeit not quite as elite as the 1%), washing their conscience from their own privilege?

The limits of a social-democratic approach

Bertell Ollman, a professor of political science and a leading expert in Marxism (as well as the creator of the internationally syndicated board game, Class Struggle), told Quartz the current debate over inequality isn’t too far from Karl Marx’s representation of capitalist society: On top, says Ollman, are the capitalists—a small group of people who are interested in maximizing profit at all cost; below them is everyone else, whose work is exploited for the capitalists’ profits. Although it might look different in terms of social status, and income, the position of professionals and that of factory workers, for instance, isn’t intrinsically different.

“Whether it’s the 99%—or maybe the 95%—the middle class is still workers,” says Ollman.

This doesn’t mean that the current debate on inequality—largely driven by individuals and politicians who themselves belong to an elite, either cultural, or economical, or both—is addressing everyone’s concerns and needs equally. “People calling themselves social-democrats are focused on making it easier for the mass of comfortable workers,” says Ollman, pointing to the reforms social-democrats have carried forward in Europe.

But Ollman says the European experiments, where some mitigations of capitalism were brought in in the form of the welfare state and regulations, show precisely the limits of maintaining a capitalistic framework while trying to make its reality more palatable to the middle class (as opposed to the working class). “Insofar as [social-democrats] don’t do away with capitalism, it’s going to turn around and bite them in the butt,” says Ollman. So long as the system isn’t changed, he explains, reform can always be undone as soon as there is a government aligned with the interests of wealth.

This also ends up alienating workers, who see only incremental progress, and don’t get necessarily captivated by social-democratic political forces. Better welfare structures are important progress, but “most workers are still doing something that is long, hard, dirty, and insecure,” says Ollman, “and that is what they think of, first and foremost.” This explains why those who would benefit from redistribution are often less engaged in the fight for it.

Middle class and workers—unite?

Michael Thompson, a professor of political science at William Paterson University, also sees merit in the framing of everyone against the ultra-rich, while sharing Ollman’s cautiousness. “The [idea of] 99% versus 1% is significant for one level of analysis,” he told Quartz, “since it’s the traditional middle class that is falling apart.”

Thompson says that the current debate on inequality is focused on re-establishing access to the kind of welfare programs that, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and after World War II, all but artificially created a middle class, and that lumping together people of different income (especially when they may have high earnings, but not a lot of accumulated wealth) with the aim of gathering momentum against inequality makes sense from a historical point of view.

While in northern European countries, for instance, redistribution of wealth has happened by way of solidarity between the rich, middle class, and poor—who all saw advantages in a more equal society—things were very different in the UK or US, where actions that went against the accumulation of wealth were actively opposed by some social groups and parties.

Thompson, however, points to something else: While for the purpose of wealth distribution it may make sense for the 99% to rally together, focusing simply on the broader issue of the few who are holding onto wealth risks diminishing the complexity of class relationships at the micro level. “There are daily micro-inequalities that get glossed over by the broader conversation on inequality,” he says. “We are so obsessed with numbers that measure distribution that we ignore the new inequalities that are emerging.”

The urban 20%, for instance, who is more likely to be attuned to the inequality conversation, is in a position of power over the rest of the country—even when it doesn’t belong to the ultra-rich. Within cities, too, Thompson sees what he calls “the expansion of the servant society,” or the growth of people who lend their time and work for temporary services—such as driving for ride-sharing companies, or delivering food.

This risks derailing the fight against the ultra rich, Ollman says—because it recreates capitalistic, exploitative dynamics within workers. Those who are aware of the issue of inequality, then, as well as the more exploited workers who don’t have the luxury to engage in big political conversations, end up gravitating back toward isolation—they no longer identify as the 99%, but rather as parts of different subclasses. “People end up defending what they have, not reaching out for solidarity,” says Ollman. “This plays in the hands of the [capitalist] system, maintaining and enabling inequality.”

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