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Unemployment: Serious political will now needed

It is sad indeed that as the world celebrates International Labour Day this week, unemployment in Zimbabwe continues to rise as the economy slips deeper into recession. Despite having some of the brightest and most skilled people in Africa, we have the highest rate of unemployment.

The Ritesh Anand Column

A handful of workers turned out for the government-organised Workers Day event held at Rufaro Stadium on Monday.
A handful of workers turned out for the government-organised Workers Day event held at Rufaro Stadium on Monday.

Over the last two decades, many Zimbabweans have lost the jobs as economic conditions deteriorated. Despite the ruling Zanu PF party’s pledge in 2013 to create over two million jobs, unemployment continues to increase. Any hope of improvement fades with each passing day as politics continues to dominate at the expense of the economy. What will it take to transform Zimbabwe’s failing economy?

It is difficult to quantify exactly Zimbabwe’s true level of unemployment. Some estimate unemployment to be as high as 90% while official statistics released by Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) in 2011 place unemployment at 10,7%. This figure is based on an “expanded” definition of unemployment that included people who had given up looking for work. Figures based on a narrower “strict definition” of unemployment, which only counted people who were out of work, but actively looking for a job, put unemployment at just 5,4%.

The 2011 survey provides the most recent official data on unemployment and was based on interviews conducted with Zimbabweans from 9 359 households. The Zimstat survey concluded that 6,1 million people aged 15 and older were “economically active”. (Zimbabwe’s population was estimated to be around 12 million at the time.)

As is the norm worldwide, the survey classified anyone who had worked for at least an hour — for cash or in kind — in the week preceding the survey, as employed. As a result, around 5,4 million people fell into the “employed” category.

According to the survey, most of the 5,4 million Zimbabweans worked in the informal sector (84%), with only 11% (606 000) in formal employment. But only about a quarter of all those counted as employed received some form of financial compensation for their work. That means that there are approximately 150 000 people in “formally paid employment”. This places unemployment at close to 97%!

Like many African countries, Zimbabwe classifies subsistence farming as “employment”. Agriculture (both formal and informal) contributes 66% of total employment in Zimbabwe, while in South Africa (which excludes subsistence farming) it contributes 4,4%.

When the 2011 Zimstat labour survey was conducted, it was still an internationally-accepted survey practice that people who “worked for their own consumption” could be classed as employed. But this changed in 2013, when the international body of labour statisticians decided that work “for own final use” should not be counted as employment. If all countries implement this, these unrealistically low unemployment rate figures in African countries will stop.

The high informal sector component adds to the “gross underestimate” of unemployment and makes it difficult for researchers to accurately measure informal employment. Regardless of this, the overall conclusion remains that there is an absence of reliable data on Zimbabwe’s employment statistics.

Very little primary data exists on unemployment in Zimbabwe. Claims that the unemployment rate is 60%, 85%, 95% or even as low as 4% — as stated by the World Bank — are not supported by reliable, current data.

The most recent labour survey conducted by the country’s agency for national statistics — which pegged unemployment at 10,7% — is three years old and has been criticised as a “gross underestimate” of the problem.

The vast majority of the Zimbabweans it classified as “employed” were in fact ekeing out a living as subsistence farmers. Neither the Zimstat estimate nor the much higher unemployment estimates of 60% or 85% or 95%, can be considered reliable. Given the parlous state of Zimbabwe’s economy, unemployment levels are certainly extremely high. But to understand the scope of a problem and implement policies to help solve it you need to be able to quantify it.

So as the world celebrates International Labour Day many Zimbabweans will be left wondering where did we go so wrong? For a country that was once considered the “Jewel of Africa”, a once-proud nation with some of the brightest minds on the continent, it is a real shame. As the economy collapsed, so did the dreams and hopes of so many Zimbabweans. While we can blame some of this on sanctions, there has also been gross economic mismanagement.

While we can argue about the precise levels of unemployment, we cannot deny the fact that so many Zimbabweans struggle to survive with the vast majority “employed” in the informal sector. There is a better way and it starts with greater focus on the economy and the challenges that lay ahead. We can turn this economy around, but this requires greater political will and belief in doing the right things.

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