By Lovemore Ranga Mataire
IF EVER you wanted an example of a moving target, try Zimbabwe’s unemployment figures.
Opposition parties have their own numbers, the ruling Zanu PF party its own set and so does the World Bank and others.
In its 2013 manifesto, Zanu PF said unemployment was 60 percent, main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T reckons it is as high as 85 percent, and the World Bank thinks it is as low as 5.4 percent.
But all those figures do not matter for economic, social and political planners in Zimbabwe because only statistics by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) count.
Last week, ZIMSTAT sent Zimbabwean Twitter into meltdown when it released figures showing unemployment hovering just above 11 percent.
“Breaking News!,” announced @TrymoreMuhlanga tongue in cheek. “Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate better than South Africa (25 percent), Spain (23 percent) and is comparable to the Eurozone (11 percent).”
Nqaba Matshazi, the deputy editor of The NewsDay newspaper also could not resist making fun of the numbers.
“Sanctions must go,” he said. “Now Zimbabwe’s unemployment is 11.3 percent, without sanctions it would be lower.”
“So what are you people whining about?,” popular blogger and newspaper columnist Ranga Mberi chimed in.
The truth is, with the parlous state of Zimbabwe’s economy, an unemployment figure of 11.3 percent is a hard sell to a population that has watched factories close down and companies relocating or retrenching with the loss of tens of thousands of formal sector jobs.
The debate is centred on whether ZIMSTAT’s measure of unemployment in Zimbabwe is a true reflection of what is on the ground.
“ZIMSTAT used the international standards of determining employment. Any economic activity that gives one an income is considered employment and this includes your airtime vendors or touts,” said Zacheyo Mutimutema, a labour consultant with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
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.
Like many African countries, Zimbabwe also classifies subsistence farming as “employment”. Agriculture, therefore, contributes 66 percent of total employment, while in South Africa, which does not class subsistence farming as employment, it contributes just over 4 percent.
In an executive summary of the survey carried out in 2014, ZIMSTAT director general Mutasa Dzinotizei says that the report provides useful information for formulating policies on employment, human resources development strategies, macro-economic monitoring, incomes support and social programmes.
“The survey findings also feed into the calculation of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country. The methodology used in carrying out the survey and the design of the questionnaire conform to internationally acceptable standards,” said Dzinotizei.
He defended the survey’s findings, saying it culminated in the production of three reports on the Labour Force; Child Labour and the Characteristics of Labour Migrants, with the latter being the first of its kind in the SADC region.
He may regret it now, but Tendai Biti, the leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party who was Zimbabwe’s finance minister in a coalition government in 2013 before returning to opposition benches, spoke forcefully in support of the lowly-pegged unemployment figures which his party leader then, Tsvangirai, thinks are a joke.
“We have always had this argument about what is the percentage of people that are employed or unemployed in Zimbabwe. Textbook economists will say 85 percent but that is not true. If we had a population like that, most people in Zimbabwe would have died, it is not possible,” he said in June 2013.
“One is either a farmer, selling juice cards, driving an emergency taxi or you are working as a hairdresser. The fact of the matter is most people are economically active.”
According to Sithembiso Nyoni, Zimbabwe’s Medium Enterprises and Co-operative Development Minister, over six million Zimbabweans in a country of 13 million are employed in the informal sector, which is to say they are economically active but not paying taxes to treasury.
An astonishing US$7.4 billion is circulating in the informal sector, she said, but the taxman had no access to it.
While the numbers support the claims that Zimbabwe’s economy has been informalised, can informal sector jobs which offer no security or pensions, really be counted as “employment”?
Mutimutema says the real figure that should concern policy makers is that of formal employment, which gives job security and enables the government to fund critical social programmes.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda that recognises job security, rights of employees and recognises social dialogue, he said.
“From that angle, you have to say the current unemployment percentage of 11.3 is a bit misleading and gives the illusion of a normal state of affairs in the country,” he told The Southern Times.
“The truth of the matter is that social services are compromised as there is very little by way of tax that comes to central government.”
Prominent Zimbabwean economist, Brains Muchemwa, said ZIMSTAT deals with standard and scientific specifics of determining employment through considering the number of people looking and not finding employment in a specific period of time like 30 days.
“The problem is that these things are scientific and the percentage figure that ZIMSTAT came up with is a product of a scientific process using certain parameters like the one I have referred to,” said Muchemwa.
He, however, said the low unemployment percentage figure should not lull policy makers into complacency as they were acutely aware of the situation obtaining on the ground.
While Zimbabwe has been haemorrhaging formal jobs, economists agree that there has been a substantial redistribution of wealth from big business to small business and in the process empowering hitherto unempowered workers.
Big business has been replaced by SMEs, informal traders and small scale commercial farmers in key economic sectors of agriculture, mining, retail, manufacturing and construction.
The informal sector is thriving and continues to grow despite the liquidity challenges, which continue to hamstring big business.
The changing employment landscape in Zimbabwe, and the competing figures, pay homage to an observation made by American Professor Aaron Levenstein, who once said: “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”