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Editor’s Memo

All happily employed except 9%
Vincent Kahiya

THE Zimbabwean government has mastered the art of coming up with preposterous statistics to mask the current crisis.

The latest is the assertion by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) that

Zimbabwe has only 9% unemployment. This statistic is another aberration on Zimbabwe’s economic landscape.

As inflation soars to Weimar proportions, as companies close down and those still open are being forced to scale down, we are told Zimbabwe’s unemployment is 9% and in fact is coming down. (Although the figure is for 2004, it hasn’t been revised and government is sticking to it).

This is even more surprising for a country with a declining GDP and negatives in all other economic indicators. But there is a catch to it.

It rests on the definition of unemployment. The CSO, using a dubious method, defines the unemployed as those who at the time of the survey had for seven days persistently searched for work and failed to get employment. This conveniently brings down the rate to 9,3%.

South African labour experts, Geeta Kingdon and John Knight in 1996 wrote: “When unemployment is very high, its definition becomes an issue. If many unemployed people stop actively searching for work because they become discouraged, then it may be misleading to measure the unemployment rate by considering as unemployed only those who actively looked for work. At high rates, the measure of unemployment is endogenous because the number actively seeking work itself depends upon the unemployment rate.”

This is an important observation which is applicable to the parlous state of the labour market in Zimbabwe. There are not many people going to employment agencies today or simply waiting at the gates in industrial areas in search of employment because they know the jobs are not there. Those in the rural areas do not even have the money to travel to urban centres in search of employment.

The absence of enquiries for employment has — using the CSO method of measuring unemployment — been construed by government to mean that unemployment has come down.

This is the sort of self-deception that will not help the country’s cause, especially when it comes to planning for social services and formulating pro-poor policies.

Many dictatorships have tried to insulate policy failure by reinventing definitions of poverty. Zimbabwe has fallen into this practice.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a more useful definition of unemployment, albeit complicated. In summary, the ILO says the unemployed comprise all persons above a specified age who during the reference period were without work, meaning they were not in paid employment or self-employment.

The unemployed, according to the ILO, also include people currently available for work during a reference period and those seeking work or have taken specific steps in a specified time period to seek paid employment or self-employment.

The specific steps may include registration at a public or private employment exchange: application to employers; checking at worksites, farms, factory gates, markets or other assembly places; placing or answering newspaper advertisements; seeking assistance of friends or relatives; looking for land, building, machinery or equipment to establish own enterprise; arranging for financial resources; applying for permits and licences, etc.

In short, the unemployed are those out of work, available for work and are seeking work.

The CSO survey says in 2004, 87% of the employable age group of 15 years and above was economically active, leaving only 9% without a job during the period under review.

It said those aged 15 years and above, considered to be the working age population, accounted for 60% of the population. Out of those, 87% was economically active. Using the CSO definition of unemployment, only 9% of the economically active people were considered to be unemployed.

The CSO said unemployment was highest among youths with a high-school education and residing in urban areas.

So according to the CSO, street vendors playing hide and seek with the police in urban areas can consider themselves employed. This also means youths who “look after” parked cars in the CBD, prostitutes, touts, those trading fuel and foreign currency on the black market etc can consider themselves employed because they are engaged in commercial activities and are not actively seeking employment. 

In the rural areas, those eking out a living tilling the land are also gainfully employed even if they require humanitarian assistance annually? If our employment figures are so good, can I ask why the super-effective Gershem Pasi and Zimra have failed to collect tax from all these employees?

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