Unravelling the Mysteries Surrounding Zambia's Employment Challenge

By Caesar Cheelo and Mwanda Phiri

For some time now, the true extent of the jobs challenge in Zambia has become topics of considerable debate. Indeed this debate has become increasingly more heated in recent times with some members of the Zambian society contesting official statistical figures, which suggest that the unemployment problem in Zambia is not as bad as many believe it to be.

Official statistics indicate that only 8% of the total Labour Force as of 2012 is unemployed. In absolute terms, this is under half a million people out of nearly 6 million potential job seekers.

Despite this official position, many observers feel that Zambia's official unemployment rate is a gross underestimation. They argue that the levels of unemployment are much higher than what the recorded official statistics show, often pointing to the large numbers of unemployed people they anecdotally know about.

This explains why concerns about the jobs challenge are growing by the day. It is difficult to move around Lusaka and not hear the ill-fated words "Nipemphako nchito!" [I am asking for a job] pass the lips of one of the youth. The frustration of young people is particularly acute. Earlier this year, six former University of Zambia students gathered at Arcades shopping complex in Lusaka to protest about unemployment in Zambia. They were arrested for what was described as unlawful assembly.

These and other numerous cries for employment seem to suggest that Zambia faces a much bigger unemployment problem than the official statistics indicate. But Zambia also faces the problem of underemployment. It is estimated that 94% and 69% of the Labour Force in rural and urban areas respectively, hold informal sector jobs and the majority of these are unpaid family workers. They are the working poor; underemployed and uncompensated.

What this means is that Zambia faces a battle on two fronts: it must create more jobs to match population growth but it also has to create better quality jobs too.

Zambia's paradox is that while the country continues to record impressive economic growth rates averaging 7.8% over the last decade, 60% of the population still lives below the poverty line. It is widely acknowledged that to the extent that employment can give citizens a decent wage, it can offer them reprieve from poverty. But in order to achieve this, Zambia needs not just more, but also better jobs.

But where will these jobs come from? And how can the existing jobs be improved to offer employees decent wages and working conditions? Is it Government's role to create employment through the Industrialization and Job Creation Strategy? Should it be youths through entrepreneurship? Or perhaps it should be the private sector by expanding their businesses and employing more people?

All these questions are complex and need answers. In thinking about the role of the State for instance, historically, the Zambian Government has played employment creation roles that varied from political era to political era. Following independence, Zambia adopted a socialist approach in which the State dominated the economy and was by far the biggest source of employment, with controlling interests in most of the industries including mining, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, energy, transport, finance, hotels and restaurants, and agricultural services and marketing.

But with the liberalization and extensive public sector reforms that ensued in 1991, the role of the State changed drastically. Public sector participation in economic activities quickly reduced and employment was limited to public and civil services necessary for the provision of public goods and services. The private sector thus became the desired forerunner in employment creation and has also often been heralded as the engine of economic growth. In fact, statistics indicate that private businesses or firms in Zambia employed more than half of the total 5.5 million employed persons in 2012. Nevertheless, businesses face challenges which inhibit their productivity, profitability and consequently, limit their ability to employ more workers.

From the foregoing, the challenges of job creation in Zambia abound and different surveys and studies have considered, in piecemeal, some of the underlying sources of these challenges. Improving the quality and productivity of formal and especially informal jobs will be critical for Zambia to realize its employment, inclusive growth and sustainable development aspirations. But it will only stem from a closer look at these issues. As such, these issues are exactly what ZIPAR's new Flagship Project on More and Better Jobs is exploring. The project, launched at the end of June by the Permanent Secretary of the Minister of Labour and Social Security, Mr. Trevor Kaunda has involved representatives from the private sector, government and civil society in a substantive way. It will help provide answers to one of the biggest challenges that Zambia faces – how to reduce both unemployment and underemployment.

The authors are researchers at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR).
For details contact the Director,
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