Everyone needs a job. So, what’s it like job-hunting in Zambia?
I grew up in Mufulira, a mining town located in the Copperbelt region of Zambia. This is a town with a colonial past; and a visitor from UK might be surprised at some familiar things. For example, in the middle of the town is our Post Office with a brass letterbox, just the same as an old rural English post office with a red painted slot machine for stamp books. The stamp books have long since vanished but the two boxes remain – one marked: Copperbelt, the other – Overseas.
After Independence in 1964, when Zambia became 100% our own country, we had to turn inwards to ourselves and towards Africa for business and jobs. If you are looking for a job in Zambia you have to look close by.
Until recently, just out of University, I was one of the unemployed; one of those you would see walking the streets of Mufulira and wondering if every other pedestrian had a purpose that was denied to me, heading somewhere to make ends meet.
In that time, I would also walk the streets of Kitwe, Ndola, Kalulushi, Lusaka, Serenje, Livingstone… you name it. I went to these towns because they all had one thing in common; vendors and traders selling various goods, from fresh vegetables grown in their gardens to phone gadgets and similar electronic accessories. Did these businesses generate enough income to make ends meet? I did not know; but at least they appeared to be in work.
It is all very well looking for a job but in Zambia you do this knowing that three quarters of the country is looking for a job and that you are a part of that statistic.
So one question I ask is whether education matters – do you have more of a chance of work if you study?
In my case, I studied for a BA in Economics at Zambia Catholic University (ZCU) in Kalulushi town. Unlike UK, most universities in Zambia, such as ZCU, have few work experience or internship programs – because there are so few areas in the workplace robust enough to offer the facility. The only exceptions are medical and mines related programs. My elder sister, Mupeta, studied pharmacy at the University of Zambia (UNZA) and she was one of the lucky ones. I always envied her for it. My other sister, Musonda, is currently studying nursing at Mufulira School of Nursing and, in her case, she actually spends more time on a hospital ward than she does in class! As regards other subjects, internships are never even heard of.
I live in a country in which, if you or any of your family members do not know people on the inside of companies, you are likely to spend years looking for a job. This syndrome is known locally as “having connections”.
Yes, if you go to the website “gozambiajobs.com”, job vacancies are posted every day with an apparent wide variety to choose from but most of these vacancies are filled in by applicants who have relatives or know someone at the company advertising the vacancy.
But that is not my story.
After four years of hard my economics degree, I decide to apply for jobs a month before the end. I was not yet qualified and had little experience. But it did not stop me. I sent off my CV and kept on applying for jobs, even if they were beyond my scope.
Eventually, I was asked to interview for a job that did not require my economics background at all but instead ‘my fluency in English’….and somewhat mouthy personality. A travel agency needed people to join their team of Travel Reservation agents! The result – I took the offer without hesitation because it was better than staying at home complaining about being unemployed. Did I know anyone who worked at the agency? No.
My story had a better outcome than most job seekers in Zambia, as you can see, but many others are less fortunate.
Let us take the typical experience of a friend of mine – LK. LK graduated in 2013 after four years of hard work at university pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies. Fresh out of university, he was so excited about getting employed. He immediately began to send out applications to every company he could think of. However, LK spent years looking for a job, not that he wasn’t qualified, but there were simply not enough jobs out there.
One would think that, with the high rate of unemployment in this country, there would be government programs to help people. Well, sad but true, there is no such thing. Eventually, after striving for years, LK finally got recruited by a company that was looking for self-driven individuals who could work in a bank. Today, LK works in a bank as a bank teller. His story is the proof of the predominance in Zambia of what is called ‘frictional unemployment’ – this is an economic term to describe a mismatch, where the job seekers are not qualified for the jobs available. In Zambia, due to this type of unemployment, many job seekers tend to accept the first job they are offered just to avoid remaining unemployed.
So that is Zambia today. I studied economics and yet I work in a call centre as a travel agent. LK studied Development Studies and yet is working as a bank teller. I could go on and describe many others that are doing jobs which have nothing to do with their area of expertise – but am sure you get the picture.
However, what about those who have not had the chance to experience higher levels of education? Let me flip the coin. The majority of young people in Zambia (especially those in the rural parts of this country) have never been to a college or university and, due to that, most of them have very low employment expectations.
Take WS, for example. He grew up in a rural part of Zambia and is now in Lusaka looking for employment. Asked what kind of employment he is looking for, he says he can do anything. The most he is hoping for is to get a driver’s licence and apply for employment as a driver. WS says that in his home town of Serenje, the most many can actually hope to achieve is to make it as a semi-commercial farmer. In Serenje, many households begin to teach their children farming skills at a tender age. This is because, farming is a huge deal in Zambia and the Agricultural sector has the highest employment percentage rate.
Farming in Zambia is not as commercialized as many might think. It is part and parcel of many households, and every state school has an agricultural program called Production Unit (PU). If you attend a Zambian state school from Primary education level all the way to Secondary education level, you are well familiar with what I’m talking about. Before the academic year begins, you will be required to report to school with basic farming tools. It can either be a hoe, or a rake, or an outdoor hard broom, or even a grass cutter. (State schools in Zambia never use lawn mowers for their lawns or an industrial cultivator for their school farm sites). Students are taught to sweep the surroundings with the hard broom, manually cut the grass with a grass cutter called a “Slash”, and cultivate the land with a hoe. This program helps many individuals later in life to be able to fend for themselves through sustainable farming. There is a whole side of Zambian society therefore that relies on the land.
But I have not mentioned pay. Perhaps you are wondering what are the levels of pay for a job in Zambia? Well, if you are a college graduate and have a certificate, diploma or degree, then the least basic salary you might get is about K2000/month ($182/month). Since this will be classed as formal employment, the tax authorities have to obtain their share from this. However, the laws of Zambia do not allow the tax authorities to tax employees getting K3000 and below. If you get anything above K3000, you qualify for tax authorities to tax your pay; be it K3001, it is still above K3000. This employee may actually walk away with about K2790/month ($169/month) because of that extra K1. Whether this is fair or not, the formal employee will at least receive a monthly salary.
But what about the informal employee? How much does he or she really get? And how much less secure is their work? In Zambia, being an informal employee has its costs and benefits. For example, if one is a small scale farmer, because the produce is not entirely monitored, you may walk away without being taxed at all. This farmer may supply numerous retail stores or even have a large company exclusively buying his produce. However, this kind of business transaction is not secure at all. In most cases, they are verbal agreements with nothing signed on paper to make these transactions legal. It is then difficult for these rural farmers to obtain a loan from the bank because, by doing so, they would attract the attention of the tax authorities.
So how can things improve? Perhaps one of the barriers to improvement is politics. Zambia is one of the most politically driven economies. Decisions made by the government are not only to improve the welfare of the citizens but rather to bolster the political standing of a party.
Presently, public investment has gone into the construction sector. There are roads being constructed almost everywhere in the country. Will this improve the cost of doing business? Perhaps, yes. Is it politically motivated? Probably. Are these road construction projects being given to Zambian road construction companies? No, they are being taken up by Chinese companies. These infrastructure projects should be improving the cost of doing business as well as creating employment. However, it has been reported that the terms of these jobs with the Chinese are not favourable. However, with so many seeking a job – any job – people consider they are better off working under unfavourable conditions than not being employed at all.
In most cases, the private sector pays more money than the public sector and always pays its employees on the stipulated date. Despite the public sector’s low basic salaries and delayed payments, people think public workers (civil servants) have it all. This is because unlike the private sector, the government has a pension scheme for its public workers. So if someone walked up to me and asked me which sector I would rather work for, I would say the public sector because it secures my future and I know I would feel a part of economic development through improving the social welfare of my people. But would this be good for Zambia or just good for Mabvuto Chibende? This is the problem. We know a government job is more secure, but can a country run itself just on government jobs?
My wish is for the government to create employment programs and reduce unemployment in Zambia but perhaps we need also to set the conditions to create enterprise and trade that can support employment, pay a fair share of taxes to the treasury, and lift people’s hopes and aspirations.
We are not there yet. I am now working for an international travel agency – but I have yet to travel. Maybe one day….
By Mabvuto Chibende
Updated April 12th 2016