Original Research

The subjective well-being of day labourers in South Africa: The role of income and geographical location

Phillip F. Blaauw, Ilse Botha, Catherina Schenck
South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences | Vol 21, No 1 | a2087 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajems.v21i1.2087 | © 2018 Phillip F. Blaauw, Ilse Botha, Catherina Schenck | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 05 September 2017 | Published: 30 April 2018

About the author(s)

Phillip F. Blaauw, School of Economic Sciences, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, North-West University, South Africa
Ilse Botha, Department of Accountancy, College of Business and Economics, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Catherina Schenck, Department of Social Work, Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, University of the Western Cape, South Africa


Background: The informal economy in South Africa provides employment to large numbers of people who would otherwise have no opportunity to earn a living. Yet informal activities, such as day labouring, generate highly uncertain returns. Although it seems reasonable to conclude that day labourers would be dissatisfied with their lives, this is not necessarily the case as several factors contribute to people’s subjective well-being.


Aim: This study is in response to a call for more research on the subjective well-being of marginalised groups in South Africa’s informal labour market.


Setting: The day labour market in South Africa, whose members congregate at hiring sites hoping to be picked up by passers-by in need of temporary, casual workers.


Methods: Using Sen’s Capability Approach, the study builds on earlier research conducted on the general well-being of day labourers in South Africa, with specific focus on their subjective well-being and geographical location. The results from a countrywide survey of 3830 day labourers were used in a regression analysis to compare the subjective well-being among day labourers across the nine provinces of South Africa.


Results: There are statistically significant differences in the well-being of day labourers across the nine provinces. Economic variables play a role in both objective and subjective measures of well-being, while attitudinal and comparison variables are significant for the objective and subjective measures, respectively.


Conclusions: Although they have to operate in harsh conditions, day labourers in South Africa display agency by choosing to migrate to richer provinces in search of greater economic opportunity and reward. However, these potential gains are often negated by increased levels of competition and thus depressed wage levels. How to nurture marginalised groups’ abilities to exercise agency and take more control of their lives represents fertile ground for researchers in future.


day labouring; well-being; happiness; informal economy; Sen; capability approach


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Crossref Citations

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doi: 10.1111/issj.12497