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5% or 95%? Zim unemployment figure (still) hard to pin down

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In the recent flurry of reporting around Zimbabwe, the country’s levels of unemployment have been frequently referenced. Depending on the source, it is “as high as 80%”, “pegged at 90%” or “runs at more than 90%”.

Former finance minister Tendai Biti told a rapt audience in Johannesburg recently said that 95% of Zimbabweans are unemployed.

In the opposite corner are very low figures – the World Bank estimates Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate to have been 5.09% in 2016, and 11.32% in 2014.

Subsistence farmers counted as employed

A photo taken in Harare's Central Business District in November 2017, shortly before long-time ruler Robert Mugabe resigned. Photo: AFP/Jekesai NJIKIZANA A photo taken in Harare's Central Business District in November 2017, shortly before long-time ruler Robert Mugabe resigned. Photo: AFP/Jekesai NJIKIZANA

In 2014, Africa Check found that a similar swing of estimates wasn't backed by reliable data. At the time, the country’s most recent labour survey was from 2011, which pegged unemployment at 10.7%.

This figure was based on the “broad” definition of unemployment that included people who had given up looking for work, the survey by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency Zimstat said.  

A narrower “strict definition” of unemployment, which only counted people who were out of work but actively looking for a job, put unemployment at 5.4%.

Crucially, the 2011 survey classified people who “worked for their own consumption”, such as subsistence farmers, as employed. In 2013, the international body of labour statisticians resolved that work “for own final use” should not be counted as employment.

Lack of money delayed new survey

Zimbabwe’s most recent official unemployment rate is 11.3%, Tidings Matangira, a manager at Zimstat told Africa Check. This number, based on an “expanded” definition of unemployment, is derived from a 2014 Labour Force and Child Labour Survey.

“However, this [unemployment] indicator should not be considered in isolation of the nature of jobs currently available in the country,” Matangira said.

At the time of the 2014 survey, Zimstat still considered persons doing “own use production work for own consumption” as employed, he added. Further, there have been the mushrooming of a lot of informal sector jobs “where people are self-employed as own account workers”.

2014 survey data paints grim picture

Zimbabwe’s 2014 Labour Force and Child Labour Survey, released in March 2015, estimated Zimbabwe’s population at 13.4 million. Of these people, about 7.8 million were of working age - that is, 15 years and older. Eight in 10 of the working age population (81%) were considered employed.

The strict unemployment rate stood at 4.8% (or 314,000 people), compared to the broad unemployment rate of 11.3%, or 799,000 people.

Of the employed, 94% worked in the informal sector. These included nearly all of the youth aged 15 to 34 years (98%). The survey notes that “generally, the number of people in informal employment getting higher income has increased”.

Two-thirds of the employed worked in agriculture, fishing and forestry.

Zimstat planned a labour survey using the International Labour Organisation’s new classification for 2017, but a lack of money has delayed it, Matangira said.

“We are hoping that next year we may get funding and do one. Our main challenge is funding otherwise everything else is ready.”

In the absence of a survey conducted under the latest accepted international practices, unemployment in Zimbabwe is difficult to quantify. But what data is available, shows that the current economic challenge is immense.– Lee Mwiti (30/11/2016)


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