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 Global Perspective

September 2, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 17

John Prior, SVD
Marko Phiri is a freelance writer from Zimbabwe



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Unemployment dashes the hopes of Zimbabweans

By Marko Phiri

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe -- A group of men -- their ages ranging from 20-something to 40-something -- sit and exchange stories outside one of the many liquor stores that litter Bulawayo's high density townships. It is a week day when one would expect everyone to be at work, but these men are unemployed and find themselves here each day with nothing to do but watch the sun rise and set.

They discuss the latest political developments, the fuel shortages, the ever-increasing commuter fares and ask themselves when it will end.

Unemployed men gather outsde a bottle shop in Bulawayo.
Thirty-year-old Gilbert Sinyoro spends the day here. To get a drink, he depends on the goodwill of others, either the gainfully employed or the now fashionable indigenous entrepreneurs who have pounced on the fuel shortages to make a killing selling the precious liquid on the flourishing black market.

Sinyoro says he was made redundant three years ago after working for more than six years at a pharmaceutical firm in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. He's been without a job since. "I spend each day here," he told the NCR.

Finding a job in Zimbabwe is tough; the economy is shrinking and companies are reducing their workforce. Liquor stores across this city of 2 million offer transient refuge for many despite the ever rising price of beer.

Inflation is running at nearly 255 percent this year. Now the government says fuel prices will go up again this month, and this means another increase in the price of basics -- including beer.

According to the Labor Ministry, unemployment stands at 9 percent. The official figure includes workers in the informal sector and farmers working on land confiscated from prosperous white commercial farmers and redistribute it to poor, landless blacks as part of a government reform program that began in 2000.

Independent economists and labor bodies, such as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, dispute official employment figures. They put unemployment at more than 70 percent and insist jobs still are being lost. The Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's main opposition political party, puts unemployment at 80 percent. Out of a work force of 3.5 million, some 2.7 million may be unemployed.

"We don't know where the government and the Central Statistical Office obtain their figures," a trade union official in Bulawayo told NCR.

Before the onset of the controversial land reform program, farming employed thousands of locals and immigrants, and the foreign currency earned from farming -- then the country's largest foreign exchange earner -- fed into other industries with easy access to banks. For example in 2000 at the height of the farm invasions, the Zimbabwe dollar officially traded at $38 for one American greenback. Today one U.S. dollar buys ZW$22,000 at the government controlled rate. In the parallel markets were most businesses have been forced to source foreign exchange for their imports, it sells for up to ZW$50,000. The deterioration of foreign exchange earnings in the process precipitated the retrenchment of thousands of workers as companies struggle to remain viable.

Between 1999 and 2003, more than 600,000 jobs were lost in the formal sector. Amid all this, the government trumpeted the informal sector as the industry set to change the country's fortunes.

Indeed, as the formal sector shrunk, thousands turned to backyard home industries to create incomes for themselves, but these opportunities have also been lost under another government campaign called Operation Restore Order campaign.

In May, the government embarked on a program thathas destroyed houses and structures built illegally. According to U.N. estimates, 700,000 peopole have been displaced. Thousands of home-based business, the core of the informa sector, have been eliminated, leaving thousands without sources of income.

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Jethro Mpala, a councilor in Bulawayo, says the official employment figures can't be trusted. He says, for example, agriculture cannot be the biggest employer in the country.

Wiston Gama, an economics lecturer at a local university says it is not clear how the government calculates its employment figures. "The agriculture industry creates very seasonal employment as jobs are generally available during planting and harvesting, and this cannot be used to calculate levels of national employment," Gama told the NCR.

And while the informal sector has created employment opportunities, Gama says it would be difficult to calculate how the informal sector feeds into the national purse as it is a very nebulous sector whose earnings cannot always be traced.

"GDP cannot be reliably calculated using the informal sector as entrepreneurs almost always evade paying tax. Thus this sector cannot be trusted as a sound employment creation base which feeds into national income accounting," Gama said.

Maxton Kanhema, a social scientist working in Bulawayo says, "Considering what is happening here, it is difficult to understand the employment statistics given by the government. If the government says employment is at 9 percent, there seems to be nothing on the ground to prove it."

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"The streets are overcrowded with unemployed school-leavers and able-bodied men desperate to feed their families. It appears the government now classifies the unemployed under the informal sector," Kanhema said.

The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, a government funded consumer watchdog here, says a family of six needs about ZW$2 million (about US$90 by at the official rate of exchange) for food each month. But not many households here earn even a million dollars a month.

With the Zimbabwean economy shrinking and government doing little to boost investor confidence, Gilbert Sinyoro and his drinking colleagues can only but wonder what the technical jargon the government and economist use means. For them, the future does not seem to offer any hope.

"We have learned to live with the hardships," Sinyoro said as he took generous gulps from a bottle of spirits.

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