Look again at those unemployment statistics

The independent Bureau for Agricultural Policy (BFAP) has once again urged caution about the accuracy of South Africa’s record high jobless numbers, particularly in the agricultural sector. It attributes this to survey methods used by StatsSA during Covid-19 lockdowns from March 2020 onwards.

In successive reports of its quarterly Agricultural Employment Brief, the BFAP has pointed out possible contradictions and undercounting in the number of jobs in the agricultural sector in recent StatsSA publications. It notes anecdotal evidence that “surveying methodology changes applied during Covid-19 lockdown negatively affected farm employment coverage”.

It says StatsSA has reverted to in-person surveying after stopping this during the Covid-19 pandemic, but still laments weak response rates.

Referring to slight decline in the latest official unemployment numbers, BFAP said in its review for the first quarter of this year that the latest figures “are surprisingly positive but should be interpreted with care”.

StatsSA should rebase or recalculate sectoral employment numbers since the onset of Covid-19, assisted by other employment publications that are now becoming available. “Given these data limitations and resulting anomalies, we believe it is unwise to invest too much confidence in the most recent national and provincial agricultural employment figures.”

As we reported in Volume 83, the BFAP employment brief for the last quarter of 2021 said StatsSA figures suggested a loss of 70 000 farm worker jobs in the agricultural sector in the second and third quarters of 2020 which “does not align with the strong economic growth in the agricultural sector at that point in time”.

StatsSA confirmed these suspicions when its Agricultural Survey for 2020 showed a slight increase in farm jobs up to June 2020, rather than a decline.

“The implication is that care should be taken to interpret the labour force survey trends from 2020 quarter two onwards,” BFAP said.

South Africa’s official unemployment figure rose to a record high of 35.3% at the end of 2021, but dropped slightly to 34.5% in the first quarter of this year. Unfortunately even a correction of several thousand will not greatly alter the fact that nearly eight million South Africans are unemployed according to the official tally and the expanded definition is even worse.