Climate Crisis and Unemployment – Reinventing the CWP and EPWP Toward a Green Jobs Programme


Arguably, the crises of unemployment and climate catastrophe pose the most significant threats to the stability and growth of South Africa and the well-being of all its people. If these crises are not addressed and their inescapably devastating impacts mitigated against in the immediate future, the collapse of society seems imminent. For many scholars and activists alike, the creation of ‘climate jobs’ or ‘green jobs’ is central to the dual task of addressing climate catastrophe and unemployment. As such, conceptualising the ways in which a viable climate jobs programme can be developed and successfully implemented has become an intellectual duty of fundamental importance. In navigating this task, it is worth analysing existing programmes that can either provide a framework for, and/or form the basis of, the development of a progressive and proactive climate jobs programme in South Africa. To this point, this article briefly explores the Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) alongside the Community Works Programme (CWP) and, in drawing out the key distinctions between them, will argue in favour of the CWP as the most viable model upon which a progressive climate jobs programme can be built. That said, the argument presented here goes further in stating that both the EPWP and CWP need be oriented towards a comprehensive climate jobs programme that seeks to transition existing forms of work to climate conscious alternatives while also creating new green opportunities to address unemployment.

In order to deliberate what a viable climate jobs programme would look like – and subsequently, whether existing programmes aimed at addressing unemployment could offer a foundation upon which to develop one – it is important to know what climate/green jobs are. Undoubtedly, we need to make the world of work greener if we are to ensure that we can live in a clean and stable environment with sustained economic growth. As it stands, the world’s largest employment generating industries are also the biggest contributors to climate change. Employment however, in the form of green jobs, can also be a mitigating force against climate change. Green jobs help to restore the environment and fight climate change through their focus on improving energy efficiency, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and minimizing waste and pollution. They are defined as decent jobs – underscored by a decent living wage, equal and safe working conditions – that are also good for the environment and which serve the public good (ILO Actrav Policy Brief, 2018). In the South African context, the implementation of a strong climate jobs programme is central to fight against climate change and is also a key component of addressing unemployment, insecurity and inequality.

While the fight against climate change has come to the forefront of policy debates relatively recently, the need to address unemployment as a root cause of inequality has been central to South Africa’s developmental vision since the collapse of apartheid. The EPWP was formally introduced as early as 2003 in pursuit of this vision and can be described as a feature of the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) (Hlatshwayo, 2017). Drawing on the ANC’s conceptualisation of the programme in relation to the RDP, Hlatshwayo explains that; “The RDP viewed the EPWP as ‘the key area where special measures to create jobs can link to building the economy and meeting basic needs … in redressing apartheid-created infrastructural disparities’” – (Hlatshwayo, 2017, p. 2). In doing so, the EPWP was designed to; create short-term employment in the interest of alleviating the hardships of poverty caused by widespread unemployment; help develop local infrastructure in order to improve on the delivery of basic services to marginalised groups and communities affected by the inequalities of apartheid policies and spatial planning and; cater for the provision of skills, training and work experience that would ‘springboard’ beneficiaries into the labour market (Hlatshwayo, 2017).

The EPWP has yielded a number of noteworthy successes in promoting employment and has been innovative in its ability to extend public works employment beyond the conventional realm of infrastructure development and into the environmental and social sectors as well. Relevant to the need to create green jobs, McCord explains that the EPWP’s involvement in the environmental sector has; “…included clearing millions of hectares of alien invasive plants, and providing services to respond to and prevent forest fires through the ‘Working on Fire’, ‘Working for Wetlands’, and ‘Working for Water’ programmes, thus realizing considerable savings for the forestry and agriculture industries.”  – (McCord, 2017, p. 155). Despite its achievements, the EPWP is confronted by a number of significant challenges. Notably, the programme is hindered by institutional constraints involving the narrow mandate, limited capacity and weak cross-sectoral convening power of the National Agency for Public Works (by whom the EPWP is coordinated) (McCord, 2017). Additionally, against the backdrop of oversupplied labour markets, beneficiaries exiting the programme are rarely able to be absorbed into the market and are effectively reissued with their unemployed status (McCord, 2017). Despite having recognised this as a problem, the EPWP has failed to adopt policies which may cater for repeat and/or ongoing employment (McCord, 2017). Moreover, through its focus on meeting performance-based targets, the EPWP has been criticised for having created a two-tier labour market. McCord explains that; “The focus on performance against ‘work opportunity’ targets has promoted incentives to create EPWP jobs, resulting in some substitution of EPWP workers for workers displaced from existing formal jobs, the renaming of pre-existing jobs as EPWP jobs, and the re-categorization of voluntary workers receiving sub-market rate stipends as ‘EPWP employees’, which does not necessarily contribute to additional employment.” – (McCord, 2017, p. 157). So, not only does the EPWP largely fail to address unemployment in a meaningful way, but it’s creation of a two-tier labour market is ideologically incompatible with the conditions of decent work which underscore green jobs.

Like the EPWP, the CWP is also aimed at providing an employment safety-net through government-created work opportunities (PSA, 2021). That said, there a few important distinctions that can be made between the CWP and EPWP. To a certain extent, the CWP was specifically conceptualised in order to transcend the shortcomings of the EPWP and in doing so, seems to compliment the EPWP by filling some of the gaps left by the EPWP’s oversights. For starters the CWP’s orientation toward the creation of regular part-time work, with no set limit for each participant’s involvement, acts in recognition of the oversupplied labour market and structural nature of unemployment (Philip, 2013). Philip correctly points out that; “The model has a number of developmental advantages, the most significant of which is that it translates into regular and predictable incomes. This creates a sustained earnings floor for participants – rather than the short-term income spike characteristic of short-term periods of full-time employment.” – (Philip, 2013, p. 15). The CWP is also not restricted by the institutional challenges faced by the EPWP- especially as it pertains to the issues brought about through being coordinated by an institution with a narrow mandate, limited capacity and low cross-sectoral convening power. For one, since 2014 the CWP has been “…directly under the ambit of the Director-General.” – (Standing Committee on Appropriations, 2014) – allowing for additional funding to fuel the programme. Even though the CWP is administered and funded by government, it is implemented by civil society and community-based organisations and as such, is also better capacitated than the EPWP (Andersson & Alexander, 2016). This form of implementation also allows for the emergence of new forms of positive partnerships between communities, civil society organisations, and government (Philip, 2013).

The key difference between the EPWP and the CWP is that the former is sector-based while the latter is an area-based programme; “…that operates through what is called a site. Sites have varied in geographical scope, but must include a minimum target of 1,000 participants.” – (Philip, 2013, p. 13). Significantly, the conceptualisation of the CWP as an area-based programme goes further than being implemented in specific local settings- it also carries the mandate of being a catalyst for the long-term social development of its numerous sites according to a vision that is determined by the community within which it is implemented (Andersson & Alexander, 2016). In other words, the exact work funded by the CWP is work that is deemed by members of the local community as useful and which makes a contribution to the development of public goods that improve the quality of life in, and for, the community itself (Andersson & Alexander, 2016). In identifying and determining ‘useful work’, the CWP relies on active public participatory processes. Philip explains that; “At each site, a Reference Committee is constituted, to play an advisory role. Reference Committees are made up of local stakeholders, and typically include ward councilors, local government officials, civil society organizations and respected members of the local community such as school principals and clinic sisters […] The Reference Committee is the link to the wider community, and is the mechanism through which wider participatory processes are enabled.” – (Philip, 2013, p. 14). Importantly, the participatory nature of the CWP inspires communities with a sense of ownership and; “…power in realising its own potential to develop itself.” – (Langa, 2011, p. 106). The ability for communities to develop the scope of the work also leaves room for innovative local solutions to local problems to inform the process and outcomes (Philip, 2013).

The CWP provides a substantial basis upon which a climate jobs programme can be built – tackling the dual crises of unemployment and climate change simultaneously. In many existing CWP sites, environmental work has been, and is already being, funded (Langa, 2011) (Philip, 2013). The fact that the CWP’s Norms and Standards explicitly state; “…that work must not displace existing jobs, in the public sector or otherwise.” – (Philip, 2013, p. 13), is also an indication that these forms of work are reflective of emerging opportunities – experimental green jobs that are beginning to characterise new forms of employment with real contributions being made towards the fight against climate change. For example, the CWP saw participants from a site encapsulating various communities in close proximity to the Juskei River partner with the Department of Water Affairs to create the Hartebeespoort Dam Remediation Programme (Philip, 2013). Here; “The CWP involved 2,904 people in the river cleaning programme. More than sixty kilometres of river banks were cleaned, 2035 tons of debris was removed, and 731 tons of hyacinth and Caribbean weed were removed.” – (Philip, 2013, p. 24). This particular programme also resulted in important steps being made toward building consciousness and awareness around pollution and sustainability in the broader community. This highlights another valuable aspect of the CWP insofar as its scope is not narrowly restricted to an outdated industrial-oriented growth and development nexus. Under the CWP, even awareness raising has been construed as work worthy of remuneration (Philip, 2013).

Both the CWP and EPWP could potentially form the basis for a climate jobs programme aimed at tackling climate change and unemployment simultaneously. When comparing the two it seems that the CWP would provide a much stronger framework for the development of a viable climate jobs programme. In light of the fact that the generation of green jobs requires a great deal of innovation and creative solutions to localised environmental challenges, the CWP’s merit is most pronounced in its model for participatory planning and giving of ownership of initiatives toward the enhancement of public goods and the quality of life to communities. This bottom-up approach to solving the climate crisis and achieving a more just and equitable society is clearly enshrined within the Climate Justice Charter (South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and COPAC, 2020). Through cementing the integrity and expanding on the centricity of its bottom-up approach while focussing its vision on the ends imagined by climate justice, the CWP could assist communities in achieving food sovereignty; socially-owned and community-based renewable energy systems; a democratised water commons; clean energy public transport systems; eco-housing developments; and zero waste lifestyles alongside other tenets of a deep just transition (South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and COPAC, 2020). Undoubtedly, in the process this would generate new and decent employment opportunities and, through the cultivation of substantive public goods and services and social protection mechanisms, would aid in the alleviation of insecurity, hunger, and poverty. In order to create more impactful and comprehensive climate jobs programme however, the EPWP must also be brought under the banner of climate justice and must serve the pursuit of a deep just transition. While the EPWP has a number of significant conceptual and design flaws, it has done well to prioritise sector-based skills development and training and can be reconfigured to facilitate the transition of workers from extracting and polluting industries to green jobs. Moreover, the EPWP provides a framework for implementation across all spheres of government as well as a multitude of dimensions including infrastructure, environment, culture, and social sectors. Similarly, the CWP provides a basis for the cementing of strong partnerships between different government, community and civil society actors. In coordinating a rapid and complete deep just transition, it will be important that all these spheres and sectors are steered towards a unified vision of a green and just society. When taken together then, and reconfigured to complement each other in the process of a deep just transition, both the EPWP and CWP offer an important basis upon which the dual crises of unemployment and climate change can be transcended.


Andersson, G., & Alexander, P. (2016). The Community Work Programme: potentials and problems. Transformation, 91, 157-177.

Hlatshwayo, M. (2017). The Expanded Public Works Programme: Perspectives of direct beneficiaries. The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, 13(1), 1-8.

ILO Actrav Policy Brief. (2018). Just Transition towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies and Societies for All. Geneva: ILO.

Langa, M. (2011). Bokfontein: The nations are amazed. In L. Jacob (Ed.), The smoke that calls: Insurgent citizenship, collective violence and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa. (pp. 106-119). CSVR and SWOP.

McCord, A. (2017). The role of public works in addressing poverty: Lessons from recent developments in public works programming. In D. Lawson, L. Ado-Kofie, & D. Hulme (Eds.), What Works for Africa’s Poorest (pp. 141-164). Practical Action Publishing.

Philip, K. (2013). The Community Work Programme: Building a Society that Works. Employment Sector. Geneva: International Labour Office. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from—ed_emp/—emp_policy/—invest/documents/publication/wcms_223866.pdf

PSA. (2021, January). Lessons from the EPWP and CWP Programmes – Public Service and Social Security. Retrieved from

South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and COPAC. (2020). Climate Justice Charter, 2020.

Standing Committee on Appropriations. (2014). Department of Cooperative Governance and National Treasury on funding model for Community Works Programme briefing. Parliamentary Monitoring Group. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from


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About the author

Zaki Mamdoo
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Zaki is an Activist and human rights Educator

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