A deepening economic crisis in Zimbabwe is worsening already high levels of unemployment and driving a fresh wave of labour migrations into neighbouring countries, say economists.
“People are desperate because of the job losses, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to penetrate the informal sector because it has become oversubscribed,” independent economist Eric Bloch told IRIN. “The option, therefore, is to go outside the country and try to get a job there.”
Company closures picked up in the second half of 2013, after President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party won the general elections, and have continued apace in 2014.
A recent survey by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) of its affiliate members found that 75 companies had shut down since January, putting around 9,000 breadwinners out of work.
Bloch put current levels of unemployment at over 80 percent, although real unemployment levels in Zimbabwe are almost impossible to gauge because countless Zimbabweans make a living in the informal sector.
The textile, farming, mining, construction, printing and retail sectors have been particularly hard hit by company closures and downsizings, which were precipitated by poor power supplies, dwindling markets, and lack of capital to invest in new technologies and machinery.
Most municipalities owe their employees several months of salaries and are struggling to operate adequately. They are likely to undertake even more retrenchments. The cash-strapped Harare City Council, for example, which has an estimated workforce of more than 10,000, intends to lay off 2,000 of its employees, according to recent minutes of a councillors’ meeting.
Overwhelming demand for passports
Tobaiwa Mudede, the registrar general whose office processes passport applications, recently told the Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Home Affairs and Security Services that long queues of people seeking to apply for or renew travel documents were overwhelming his staff.
"There is a high demand for passports in Zimbabwe as people are leaving to escape the economic crisis the country is facing," said Mudede.
"We are being overwhelmed by people seeking travel documents," confirmed an official working at the registrar general's office in Harare, who declined to be named.
"While we received an average of 300 applications per day during this period in 2013, and lower figures before that, the number has gone up to around 600 a day," he told IRIN.
Although applicants are not required to state their reasons for seeking passports, the official said a "big number" told him that they intended to relocate to either South Africa or Botswana to seek better livelihood opportunities.
"They say there is no hope in Zimbabwe, and they would rather go and look for money elsewhere. This is the kind of pattern that we saw before the formation of the government of national unity in 2009," he said.
Between 2000 and 2009, millions of Zimbabweans, including skilled workers, fled the country to settle in southern Africa, the US and Europe as the country's economy went into free fall. The period was marked by hyperinflation, high unemployment, poor salaries and critical shortages of basic commodities.
Overnight, queues of people seeking passports have resurfaced and are getting longer, said the official, who added that anti-riot police had been deployed at the passport offices to control the crowds.
Augustine Tawanda, chairman of the Zimbabwe Cross-border Traders' Association (ZCBTA), said he had also observed increasing numbers of informal traders and economic migrants leaving the country.
"Where you used to have a total of 40 or 50 buses leaving Harare on a daily basis, the number has gone up to around 60 or more," he told IRIN.
He added that some of those travelling to South Africa and Botswana were cross-border traders who regularly returned home, while others set up temporary bases in neighbouring countries in an effort to get income through odd jobs.
Migrants find few opportunities
Patience Murowe, 26, a married mother of two from Harare, decided to settle in Louis Trichardt, a town in South Africa's northern Limpopo Province in October 2013, after being laid off from her secretarial job at a clothing company. She has since secured a job as a receptionist at a surgery.
"After the general elections in July , it became clear that the economic situation was getting worse. My former company closed two months after and is yet to pay me my outstanding salary and retrenchment package as it did not have the money," Murowe told IRIN.
She made several trips to South Africa's border town of Musina to buy clothes for resale, but discontinued when Zimbabwean customs officials stopped her bus one day and confiscated her goods, leaving her with no money to continue with the business.
"The trauma of the years before 2009 is back. Many friends, former workmates and neighbours have already moved to South Africa and Botswana because it is difficult to make a living in Zimbabwe," said Murove, whose husband and children plan to join her later this year.
Murowe’s basic salary at the surgery is around US$300 per month, compared to the $600 she used to take home from her job in Zimbabwe, leaving her little to send back to her family.
“My friends who have moved to places like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria are having a tough time fixing decent jobs and are being forced to take any offer that gives them money to at least pay rent and buy food, let alone send money back home,” said Murowe.
Zimbabweans who come to South Africa are given a permit that allows them to stay a maximum of 90 days but does not allow them to work. Those who overstay their permits or work without the appropriate documents risk being deported.
In the past, many Zimbabweans applied for asylum in South Africa and obtained permits that allowed them to work while their refugee status was being determined, a process that can take several years. In recent years, however, South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs has made it increasingly difficult to apply for or renew asylum-seeker permits, part of an effort to reduce what officials have characterized as abuses of the asylum system by economic migrants.
Meanwhile, the possibility of Zimbabwean migrants obtaining formal jobs in the region is diminishing, according to Godfrey Kanyenze, director of the Labour and Economic Development Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ). “The South African economy, in particular, is increasingly melting down, as evidenced by the weakening rand, industrial strikes for better salaries and wages, worsening investor confidence, and increasing demand for jobs among locals,” he told IRIN.
Cyril Dzinonzwa, 40, a former accountant from Harare who was laid off last year, recently returned from Botswana empty-handed after a five-month job hunt. He was arrested twice by the Botswana police for overstaying his visitor’s permit and was only released because a friend bribed the authorities.
“The majority of Zimbabweans in Botswana whom I knew did not have residence permits, and during the time I was there, I saw many being deported but going back to play hide-and-seek with the police. Most of them have resorted to doing odd jobs such as house cleaning and being porters at shopping malls, even though they might have professional qualifications,” said Dzinonzwa.
“I had to borrow money from a colleague to return home because my situation had become unbearable. All prospective employers told me that they preferred hiring locals. One of them said I should first get a work permit and give them P8,000 (US$900) to facilitate that, but I couldn’t raise the money.”
Dzinonzwa is now frantically applying for jobs in other parts of Africa.