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People moving from the Eastern to the Western Cape in search of work now find that chances to enter the job market are stacked against them, according to the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town.

Cape Town is a tough and unforgiving urban labour market. Recent data even suggests that Eastern Cape migrants to the Mother City are worse off in comparison with neighbours, friends and family of similar age and education who move to elsewhere in South Africa.

In other words, a young man or woman from the former Transkei or Ciskei might face better job prospects if he or she moves to Durban or Johannesburg rather than Cape Town.  Moving to the Western Cape is not such a good move, particularly if you are unskilled.

Cape Town has long been seen as a place of hope for the unemployed, particularly those from rural regions.  But the general increase in unemployment rates among migrants from the Eastern to the Western Cape, as seen in the 1996 and 2001 census data, may well be the most striking observation made in an unpublished paper we've done with colleagues Rob Dorrington, director of the Centre for Actuarial Research at UCT and his graduate student Nalen Naidoo.

Historically, few people migrate towards unemployment.  But this is what we're detecting. People are leaving unemployment in the Eastern Cape, only to find unemployment in the Western Cape.

Statistical comparisons done by us with Roelof Burger and Servaas van der Berg of the University of Stellenbosch suggest that the education levels and labour market experience of more recent migrants do not compare favourably with the unemployed who are long term residents of Cape Town and who are effectively in competition with the migrants for jobs.

This is especially true of women, perhaps because young women residing in Cape Town tend to stay in high school longer than both their urban male peers as well as their female rural counterparts.

Indeed, migrants' prospects in Cape Town's competitive urban labour market are not much better than they are in the areas from which these migrants (both male and female) come.  It is only the sheer desperation of the rural milieu that makes the very tough urban labour market an attractive option.

This goes some way to explaining the results of a detailed SALDRU labour market survey done with about 2,500 residents of Khayelitsha and Mitchell's Plain in 2000.

Using these datasets, economics Masters student Jasmin Jakoet showed that migrants need to spend more time looking for jobs in comparison with those that are born and grew up in Cape Town, even when controlling for different ages and education levels.

Jasmin also found that when the migrants finally obtain employment, they exhibit lower occupational mobility over a long period of time.  So migrants, once employed, are less able to improve their job history; they don't move up the career ladder, they don't change occupations.

In addition, very few migrants are skilled enough to be self-employed.

Almost the whole stream of employed migrants is composed of paid employees, pointing to a very high reliance on other people as providers of work.

And census data show that their jobs are not great.  The majority of migrants from the Eastern to the Western Cape who do find employment are involved in elementary occupations: street vendors, domestic workers, building caretakers, farm and fishery staff, and construction, manufacturing and transport labourers.

It's hard to overstate the overwhelming struggle that job searching represents for new migrants into Cape Town.  Besides their inferior school qualifications and skills, rural migrants lack a good network of contacts, friends and neighbours.

They are not in touch with people who can suggest employment possibilities.

There is now a considerable body of evidence from the research of colleague Volker Schoer, using the survey from Khayelitsha and Mitchell's Plain as well as from research that we have done using the Cape Area Panel Study, showing that these networks are of central importance to successful job searches.

Both employed and unemployed residents themselves regard information provided by social networks as the best way to find a job.

In Khayelitsha and Mitchell's Plain, close to two out of every three employed residents found their jobs because friends or relatives told them about a job or even organised a job for them at the contact's workplace.

The remaining one third of the workers were employed through more formal channels like newspaper advertisements or through other active methods like contacting employers directly.

As a result, many job-seekers in Khayelitsha and Mitchell's Plain relied exclusively on social networks to find a job.  Others pursued a mixed search strategy of active search methods and social networking. Only about a third of residents of Khayelitsha and Mitchell's Plain rely exclusively on traditional active search methods to look for a job.

It is clear that the actual hunt for a job is a compromise between what job-seekers perceive to be an effective way for them to find a job and what is feasible for them under their limited circumstances.  The unemployed often lack the time and money to undertake what they know to be the best search methods such as networking, preparing a curriculum vitae, checking out newspaper ads and contacting employers.

Both the ongoing Cape Panel Study, which tracks the transition from school into adulthood, and the Khayelitsha-Mitchell's Plain research shows quite clearly that the many of the unemployed in the city understand the labour market and its possibilities.

Many job seekers come into the labour market out of highly unfavourable education backgrounds.  They know what a liability this is.  They know that they live far away from places of work.  They know therefore that the transport costs of actively searching for a job search are very high while the potential returns - the chance of winning a job - are low.

This point is further reinforced by Cape Area Panel Study research on the expectations of Cape Town's senior high school students and young adults.  An analysis of expectations in 2002 versus outcomes in 2004 indicated that youthful predictions of the chance of obtaining some kind of work (or indeed predicting that they would fail to get work) within a few years was reasonably accurate.

Many live in households that are less likely to have any employed members.

Their social networks are unlikely to contain employed friends and relatives.  It is not hard to understand how such networks of the unemployed can become networks of discouragement rather than encouragement.

Even though these youth have a dismally accurate understanding of their position in the Cape Town labour market and they are only too aware of the day-to-day struggles that they confront around employment, many remain confident that they will find work.

Yet we found that very few of these youth were in actual employment of any kind two years after we first spoke to them.  They may well find work, but it may take longer than anybody expected.

At the very same time, elsewhere in the city, there are young job seekers who have good formal qualifications, have acquired some job experience even while at school, live closer to the jobs and are surrounded by a network of family and friends who are well integrated into the labour market.

Some of this group may be officially classified as unemployed, along with the unemployed migrants, in current labour market surveys that sample the residents of Cape Town.  However, these two groups bring very different histories and very different futures to the statistical classification that they share in the present.

The current ways of defining unemployment can mask the severity of this problem.

The one group of unemployed is ready to contribute to and benefit from Cape Town as a world class city.  However, it is much less obvious what the Cape Town labour market has to offer migrants from the Eastern Cape.

  • Murray Leibbrandt is a professor of economics at UCT and directs the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU).  Cecil Mlatsheni is a UCT economics lecturer and a SALDRU research associate: www.saldru.uct.ac.za {jcomments on}