Assessing the social value of work in public work programmes

Congratulations go to Lauren Stuart on the submission of her PhD dissertation titled “The Social Value of Work: A Case Study of Public Employment Programmes in Orange Farm, South Africa.”

Lauren’s study explored the social value of work as experienced by public works programme participants and community members who live in Orange Farm, Johannesburg.

The study presented some challenges, most notably the complexity of distilling the concept of social value, given how subjective the experience of it can be. Developing the idea of social value, specifically in a low-income context has never been more relevant, given how work as a concept has evolved, from being purely a means to an income, to acknowledging the influence it can have on multiple dimensions of an individual’s life.

Her study sought to understand how Public Employment Programmes (PEPs) promote social value and whether PEPs have the potential to go beyond the “economic” to the “social”. Lauren conducted 16 one-on-one individual interviews with PEP participants from four different PEP programmes, all based in the Orange Farm area. These interviews were complemented with a further five key informant interviews, and community focus group discussion.

Using the interviews, Lauren used a multiple case study design (MCSD) to create in depth profiles of participants to determine which PEP programmes carry the most social value for participants and for the community of Orange Farm. Her research revealed that programmes like the Community Work Programme’s (CWP) Home and Community Based Care (HCBC) were valued highly by the community and by participants, who derived meaning and fulfilment from the work.

Innovative programmes, like the CWP’s Administrative programme, provided young people with a full-time wage and relevant work experience – factors participants found to be useful in meeting their needs – and imparted a sense of career progression. Overall, all four programmes were integral to helping participants meet their basic needs but worked in conjunction with other forms of social protection, such as cash transfers and government housing (RDP).

The research also identified several areas of programme implementation that compromised social value formation such as poor health and safety, exposure to irate and verbally abusive community members, lack of permanency and future financial security and unregulated salaries. These finding suggest that PEP work plays an important role in providing income support to the most vulnerable, but also with the right priority setting and targeting can benefit more individuals and communities by providing them with services they really need and value.

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