AMHVoices: Is Zimbabwe becoming a gig economy?

The global work force is gripped with the 21st century transformation of the workplace through machine learning and robotics, which according to the McKinsey Global Institute has the ability to jeopardize 40-70 million jobs worldwide. In Zimbabwe there is an unceasing struggle to understand the forces shaping today’s employment dynamics.

Recently the government adjusted labour laws to allow the Grain Marketing Board and ferro-alloy industry employees who have been casual workers for over two consecutive years, to be considered permanently employed. On social media, discussions over fixed term contracts and independent contract agreements degenerate into crude mentions of the ills of capitalism. On the political arena, self-employment has become a rallying cry.

This compelled me to question whether or not Zimbabwe is developing into a gig economy.

A gig economy is an environment in which short term contracts, freelance jobs, temporary job positions and self-employment are common and organizations contract with employees for short-term engagements. Taking from this Zimbabwe can be referred to as a gig economy mirrored by the shifting business environment where casualization of labour and self-employment have been necessitated by the difficult economic environment.

In a gig economy, businesses implement cost cutting initiatives saving resources in terms of remuneration and occupation of office space. They have the ability to contract or outsource experts for specific projects which might be deemed too expensive to maintain on staff. They also streamline their workforce according to their work demands and on top of that costly employee benefits are limited.

In Zimbabwe companies in all sectors of the economy from the retail industry, banking and hospitality are resorting to hiring manageable fixed short terms contract workers, temporary employees and independent contractors. The unbearable cost structure of engaging fully salaried permanent employees is the main motivator behind this trend. This is also exacerbated by the abundance of a vast pool of unemployed talent which is willing to grab any form of employment opportunities.

Globally Uber, Airbnb and Lyft are the leading companies redefining the employment relationship through offering freelance work, short term contracts and independent contracts which exempts them from the cost of providing a job for life. Though they are reaping benefits of such arrangements they are facing a backlash from trade unionists who indicate that such arrangements deny workers the rights that come with the employee status.

Exponents of the gig economy articulate that it brings flexibility and work life balance whereby workers can select jobs they are interested in and choose that which they are capable of doing. Trade unions argue that this is a myth which is bent on denying employees’ rights they have under the legal employment relationship framework.

In Zimbabwe due to the ailing economy there has been an unavoidable death of employment for life and new employment models in the form of a gig economy have developed.

It is no feat of artificial making but a result of economic forces which has weakened the profitability of organizations and led to the scarcity of jobs. The traditional employment models whereby organizations hired permanent employees have given in to a new evolving workforce made up of a portfolio of full time permanent and contract employees, and the freelancers with no formal ties to a company.

In as much as human beings have the inert ability to adapt to their environments, so are businesses. They have to adapt or die. It within this scope that business and HR leaders are now replicating a gig economy whereby the classical balance sheet permanent employees are supported by contract and freelance employees. The biggest challenge is how to comply with the country’s labour laws which are rigid when it comes to labour casualization.

When it comes to understanding and addressing the simmering gig economy in Zimbabwe a multi-dimensional approach should be adopted. Most students begin their studies with the goal of getting a job at a point in time after graduation but the truth of the matter is that jobs are now scarce and no longer what they used to be.

Universities and colleges on the other hand are also preparing the workforce for the future without providing a structure for transition to match the nature of employment contracts now available. At the same time the social contract requires to be remodeled to accommodate the prevailing employment relationships.

It is important to note that the Zimbabwean labour market is on a paradigm shift, for those wishing to join the employment bandwagon and those already employed, it is time to leverage skills, experience and passions into one diverse portfolio made up of multiple work assignments to bring alternative revenue streams. Jobs in Zimbabwe will remain scarce in the foreseeable future and wages are likely to remain stagnant, so it’s time to look for supplemental income for a sustainable living and a buffer into retirement.

As for organizations, business strategy teams should join HR to produce robust plans for different types of labor and technology combinations that are needed for sustainability and profitability. Government should also embrace this change and enact flexible labour laws that reflect the state of the economy.

Freemen Pasurai writes in his personal capacity. He is passionate about people management. Contact: freemenpasurai01@gmail.com and on Twitter @freeman_pasurai

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