MICHAEL Mokoena, a spokesman for the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), takes me to task for saying that much of the work created by the EPWP fails to meet the standards of “decent jobs” that are defined for firms in the private sector.

He says there is a lot of training being provided across a range of sectors, and that many municipal-ities pay more than the R78 a day minimum prescribed by the min-ister of labour for EPWP projects.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise has long championed the idea of public works programmes. However, I have some doubts about the accuracy of Mokoena’s claims.

For example, according to the latest available “monitoring and evaluation” report on the EPWP (for April to June 2014), the EPWP generated a total of nearly 430 000 work opportunities that were the equivalent of 59 700 person-years of work. In the same period, it generated only 557 person years of training. That is the equivalent of one day’s training for every 100 days of work. This is not much by any standards, and considerably less than implied by the examples he cites.

To make Mokoena’s problems worse, last week the auditor-general told parliament that it is not even possible to be certain of how many work opportunities had been created by the EPWP. He is quoted as saying that they couldn’t find sufficient supporting documentation to substantiate the creation of work opportunities for “a large number of the projects” in their sample.

My main point, however, is different. There is something very wrong with a policy regime that allows the state to create temporary jobs with no prospects of promotion and little or no training, at wages substantially lower than minimums in other sectors, while insisting it is indecent for the private sector to do the same.

Let us look at the facts here. The current minimum wage set by the EPWP is R78.86 per day. This is way to deal with R150.99 per day less than the unemployment minimum daily wage set by the National Bargaining Council for the Electrical Industry of SA for unskilled workers in 2012. It is also R84 a day less than the minimum set for unskilled workers in the Metal and Engineering Bargaining Council in the same year.

Whether “many public bodies” pay EPWP participants more than R78 a day is irrelevant. What matters is to imagine the opportunities that could be provided to unskilled, unemployed workers if the private sector could offer them work at the minimum wage paid to EPWP participants. Unlike the EPWP, many of these jobs would be full-time, permanent, and they would offer opportunities for training and career progression in time.

The government must over-come its distaste for unskilled, low-paid work in the private sector. Low pay isn’t forever; with increasing skills and income people get promoted or become entrepreneurs and offer their children better lives. China did it – why can’t we?

SA’s policymakers have chosen to pursue a strategy that prevents employers from creating low-wage jobs in a country where millions of people are unemployed.

And so my question remains: Why is it acceptable for the state to employ people on these terms but not for businesses to do so?

We need to tackle our enormous unemployment challenge head-on. If we are to attempt to obtain even a fraction of the many millions of low-skill manufacturing jobs leaving China, then allowing the private sector to create employment opportunities for mainly unskilled and inexperienced workers must be an urgent priority.

It is time for South Africans to accept that a low wage is better than no wage at all. Mass employment is the best way to reduce poverty, increase economic inclusion and promote individual empowerment. Offering low-skill private sector jobs to millions of unemployed people in SA is the only way we will deal with the unemployment crisis.

Bernstein is head of the Centre for Development and Enterprise. This article is based on the Growth Agenda series of reports available from www.cde.org.za