OPINION: When we take a holiday, the economy does too

A lot of South Africans have started this year on a pessimistic note. Even the World Economic Forum talks about our ‘sluggish economic position’, highlighting our low growth and low job creation.

When we take a holiday, the economy does too

I’m not surprised, but probably for a different reason than you’d expect. All our well-known and much-discussed problems aside, I think one of our biggest problems is a lack of productivity.

You must have noticed just how protracted our December/January holidays have become. Not so long ago, if a company was being magnanimous to its employees it would give them half a day’s leave sometime in December to do their Christmas shopping. Companies didn’t shut down over Christmas. It was only the builders who took off early, hence the term builders’ holidays. Staff didn’t automatically get leave over Christmas – everyone had to take their turn so the business could remain productive all year round.

I don’t remember when it changed but those days are gone. Now, the two weeks before and the two weeks after Christmas are a free-for-all when everyone seems to be on holiday.

What we’ve forgotten is that when we go on holiday, so does the economy. And because our summer coincides with Christmas and New Year, we give ourselves a very slow start to the beginning of every year. Instead of raring to go, we arrive back in the office at the height of summer complaining that all the fun is over.

We’re fond of talking about the effect Eskom and load shedding have on our economy. We like pointing out the problems we face because of state capture. We’re quick to blame our government for our economic woes. While we may be fully justified in all these positions, I say that we also have to play our part. I believe business is sluggish because we are sluggish.

Putting aside the privileged few whose money makes them money, most people need to actually work if they want an income. If we shut our businesses down for weeks at a time, of course our growth and job creation are going to be low.

South African labour law entitles employees who work a five-day week to 15 working days leave per annum, and 18 working days for employees who work a six-day week. This is a lot in comparison to the USA, where the average is 10 days paid leave each year (and most employees have to work for 12 months before they can take their leave). Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the USA is a strong, first world economy.

I’m not suggesting the amount of leave we’re given is wrong, but I’m saying that we need to better manage when our staff take their annual leave, staggering holidays so that our businesses remain fully productive all year round. 

Of course, parents want leave during the school holidays but when you consider how many public holidays we have in South Africa, we should be staggering time off. If we manage employee leave better, our economy, challenged on so many fronts, won’t be shut down for weeks at a time, which is effectively what happens when everyone takes off in December.

And since we’ve mentioned public holidays, the number of public holidays we have in this country is bad enough, but the problem is exacerbated when employees are entitled to take a Monday off if the public holiday falls on a Sunday. I honestly don’t know a single business that can afford to absorb the cost of paying employees for an extra day of no work, or to pay them double when they do agree to work on the public holiday.

I’m a little tired of hearing complaints about our economy. It really is time to help ourselves by organising our productivity better, and it is time for business owners and managers to take simple measures that would aid us in this endeavour. We’ll never fix our economy if we don’t get to work.

Andrew Robinson is co-founder and executive director of SiSebenza. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of Fin24.

Published on News 24