YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Against the backdrop of rising unemployment and job losses in South Africa, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has called for a ‘jobs summit’ to be organized by the government to address the country’s unemployment crisis.

“We are deeply worried about the levels of retrenchment and unemployment in our country,” the bishops said in a statement signed by Bishop Abel Gabuza of Kimberley, chair of the Justice and Peace Commission for the bishops’ conference.

The statement came in the wake of an August 7 labor force survey which showed some disturbing statistics: Unemployment stood at 27.7 percent; and for those between the ages of 15 and 24, over 54 percent are unemployed.

Adding to the problem is that over 3 million South Africans within 15-24 age bracket are not pursuing higher education.

“This situation adds to the high levels of crime because people are desperate. Some potential employers take advantage of this situation and exploit it for their benefit. It is easy to employ people who are desperate and offer them very low wages because they are desperate,” Gabuza told Crux.

He said the situation can be attributed to high rates of unskilled labor.

“The jobs for this category of people are not in huge demand. It is easy to replace an unskilled worker,” the bishop said. “We have a culture of people in this country going out to search for jobs and not creating jobs for themselves. There is so much unlearning that needs to take place in the mindset of many people.”

Azar Jammine, the chief economist of Econometrix, said the country is “just not getting education right” for most of the population.

He said such people stay “sidelined and marginalized,” and the economy becomes managed by a handful of well-educated people.

The labor report also showed significant job losses in various economic sectors in South Africa, most significantly in the mining industry, where at least 700,000 jobs have been lost over the past two years.

But the agriculture and construction sectors have suffered even worse in the second quarter of this year; although Wandile Sihlobo, an agricultural economist at South Africa’s Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz), said it was not unusual for the sector to record such job losses this time of year due to “reduced horticultural activity.”

The report also revealed that the country shed 113,000 jobs over that period, with 37,000 fewer people seeking employment. The drop in job seekers is due to discouraged workers removing themselves from the labor market.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU, is now predicting even more jobs will be lost, and predicts millions of people might be out of work by the end of 2017.

In their statement, the bishops said it felt the pain of unemployed South Africans, as well as those facing layoffs.

They said the situation demands “a decisive and strategic action to reverse the escalation in the job crisis. We therefore join the calls for a job summit to discuss the ongoing retrenchments [layoffs] and the measures to expand job creation in the tough economic climate. The summit should be convened as a matter of urgency.”

The bishops also called for a halt to all layoffs in all sectors, pending the outcomes of the summit.

They suggested that the summit should discuss and pursue “job creation through macro-economic reforms and mitigation of the current political uncertainties. Our country needs a macro-economic framework that it is increasingly labor-absorbing and equitable in its distribution patterns.”

They underscored the need for measures to be taken to expand and sustain social protection for vulnerable families in the face of the economic crisis.

“We therefore condemn the delays in the implementation of the unemployment insurance amendment bill which has been sent back to the Parliament for corrections,” the bishops’ statement said.

The Poverty Dimension

The disappointing jobs report means that the poverty situation in South Africa will continue to get worse.

Even now, the government statistics office says poverty increased to 55.5 percent – that is 30.4 million people – in 2015.

“This kind of poverty cannot be resolved by social grants and the like. That type of poverty is solved if people are doing work and being productive,” said Pali Lehohla, the statistician general.

Reversing the situation will be a long-term project. The South African economy can currently only absorb 43.3 percent of working-age job seekers. In 2008, it was 45.8 percent.

This trend means the government’s 2030 target of an absorption rate of 61 percent will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet.

While recognizing the “big challenge” in reversing the situation, Gabuza told Crux that a long-term solution would mean deemphasizing a university education.

“The long-term solution is to change the mindset when it comes to education,” the bishop explained.

Gabuza said the state should also devote resources in developing skilled artisan workers.

“The government will have to seek ways of setting up structures for young people to be trained to be skilled in the different fields of being artisans,” he said.

The bishop called on government to work with business – including wage top-ups and tax incentives – to encourage the training of a skilled workforce, and get South Africans back to work.