Dodgy data from StatsSA on unemployment masks real jobs crisis

The assertion by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) that the official unemployment rate declined from 30.1% (in quarter 1) to 23.3% (in quarter 2) is deceptive and masks the real extent of the unemployment crisis in South Africa.

The key takeaway from yesterday’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) is that 2.2 million people lost their jobs in the 2nd quarter of 2020 and that the real unemployment rate increased by 2.3% to an unprecedented 42% in the same quarter.

This is nothing short of a catastrophe, the social and economic consequences of which are going to plague South Africa for some time to come.

There were various delays in the release of the 2nd quarter QLFS. This was partly due to the fact that constraints imposed by the Covid-19 national lockdown forced the statistics agency to adopt a new collection methodology. StatsSA suspended its fieldwork and face-to-face methods of administering questionnaires during the lockdown. Instead, the data was collected using Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI), not the usual face-to-face interviews. This meant that data could not be collected from a full sample but only from households for which contact numbers were available.

On top of this, budget cuts, underfunding and depleted expertise at StatsSA have also called into question the credibility of its statistics. What has emerged from the 2nd quarter QLFS, therefore, should be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

South Africa can ill-afford to rely on dodgy data when it comes to making the kind of economic policy decisions that are needed to grow the economy, reform the labour market and create jobs. We need methodological consistency and accuracy from the QLFS.

Better information makes for better decisions, and we need both as we go about tackling pandemic of joblessness