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Labour market

One of Zambia’s greatest challenges

by Anthony Mulowa
Like many developing countries, Zambia faces challenges of high poverty and unemployment. Unemployment in particular has contributed to social unrest. Too few people are able to find jobs, and young people suffer the most. [ By Anthony Mulowa ]

“Something should be done so that we don’t lose the young generation just after spending money on their education,” says Sungari Banda. The young woman, a college graduate from Livingstone Institute of Business and Engineering Studies (LIBES), adds: “Young people should be given an opportunity to work so that they contribute to the development process.”

Banda studied electrical engineering. After completing training in December, she did her practicals at Zesco, Zambia’s power utility company. She still does not have a job, and does not know when she will find one. She is 22 years old and says employment is hard to come by, especially for women, and most of her fellow college graduates are either at home doing nothing or wasting time with low-skill part-time jobs. Most feel their professional training is worthless.

Banda blames the prevalence of corruption and nepotism in the recruitment process of most para­statals and private companies. She says chances of being hired are slim unless an influential family member is already inside the system and willing to help. For women the problem has another angle, as she can tell from experience. More than once, a superior told her he would employ her if she went to bed with him. Such behaviour is offensive anywhere in the world, but particularly so in a country where one in seven people is HIV-positive.

“It is really tough,” Banda says. “One of the best students who finished a year ahead of me is just a general worker today, slashing grass at Zesco.” She believes the government is responsible for creating a new environment where young college graduates have less trouble finding professional jobs.

This is one of Zambia’s greatest challenges. According to Zambia’s Central Statistical Office (CSO), approximately 67 % of Zambia’s 12 million people live below the Poverty Datum Line, and 46 % are even classified as extremely poor. The latest CSO survey further reveals that of 6.2 million people in the labour force, only 700,000 are formally employed – most of them men. The vast majority of the workforce are engaged in the informal sector, if they find any work at all. It is particularly rare for women and youths to be formally employed.

Zambia’s population is young, with 70 % consisting of youths. Many people blame the government for drafting ineffective education and employment policies. They wonder what the country’s ministries for education or labour and social security are good for. And what difference does the Ministry for Sport, Youth and Child Development make?

There are masses of young people with good qualifications, but no job. Even university graduates, like Banda, do not have anything to do. As a result, many start participating in illicit behaviours, including petty crime and prostitution, increasing promiscuity and the rate of HIV.

Future street vendors

The poor state of the labour market also puts a strain on the education system. Most youths complete secondary school, but many cannot afford to proceed to college or university. Thus, students’ motivation suffers. They know that many of them are likely to end up as street vendors. That is something youths engage in because they want to generate at least a little income in order to contribute to their families’ welfare.

Bishop George Lungu, the president of the Zambia Episcopal Conference (ZEC), a Catholic organisation, says youths are experiencing very frustrating times. In his message for this year’s Youth Day, an annual celebration on March 12, he stated he felt sorry for youths because most of them were neglected. He also told one of Zambia’s private newspapers, The Post, that most of Zambia’s young had lost hope in life, and that it was not right to blame them for what they engaged in. He argued that too little was being done to ensure that young people find livelihoods of their own.

The bishop not only blamed the government. He also said that leaders of civil-society organisations have failed the youth too, amassing personal wealth whilst claiming to run programmes in support of the young.

What saddens Bishop Lungu in particular is the high level of corruption linked to employment. “Some youths are qualified but are failing to find employment,” he explained. “Interviews are being held but at the time they are held, people who interview others know already who has been employed, who has been engaged, but they go public as if there is a possibility for employment for these desperate youths.”

Duncan Nyirongo, the president of the University of Zambia’s Students Union (UNZASU), also speaks of corruption. He says politicians should not take advantage of students. Nyirongo warns fellow students who want to run for union office to be wary of political sponsors who want to make sure the students will promote their interests. He also urges the youths to set good leadership standards.

It saddens the student leader to see young people being paraded about singing the praises of the very politicians who are actually responsible for the nation’s current problems. “These politicians will always use the poverty they have created to champion their cause,” Nyirongo says. Those in positions of power promise post-graduation employment to students they can use and manipulate, thwarting young peoples’ ability to struggle for meaningful change.

Home Affairs Minister Lameck Mangani recently revealed that politicians were indeed hiring some youths as thugs. On March 15, a youth mob staged a riot in Kitwe when a Catholic priest, Frank Bwalya, appeared in court. The priest was arrested after allegedly attempting to disrupt the Youth Day celebration in Kitwe by distrubting red cards on March 12. After the arrest of 24 of the youth protesters, some confessed that politicians had paid them to cause confusion. They were released after paying admission of guilt fees of 50,000 Zambian Kwacha each. The sum is the equivalent of only seven dollars, but quite a lot of money for an unemployed youngster.

In response, Zambia’s Austin Liato, the minister for labour and social security, said the government was doing all it could to ensure jobs creation. He spoke of trying to create job opportunities, “so that our young people can participate in the economic affairs of the country and reduce poverty”. In specific, he said the Zambian government was putting more emphasis on economic growth so sectors such as agriculture, tourism and manufacturing could create additional job opportunities. He also pointed out that the mining business is growing and will thus be hiring more people.

The post-graduate unemployed like Sugari Banda take note of such proclamations. But they doubt they’ll make a difference in their lives.