he May Day events in most European countries on Monday May 1st is indicative of the difficult time the world’s workers are facing at a time of global austerity and high unemployment. Europe as a result of the financial recession has been hit hard, with countries like Spain and Greece having over 50% of the working age population out of work. In growing regions such as China, India and Malaysia, protesters have turned out to fight for better wages and working conditions. Despite being the apparent winners of globalisation because of their loose labour laws, regulations and low wages, these countries nationals have managed to sustain high levels of employment on unliveable wages. This arguably is the price they must pay to keep growing as far as their leaders are concerned. However, as one young Hargeisa university graduate said over the phone, “at least they have a job.”
It is hard to dispute the lifelong impact of unemployment for all members of society who are able to work and need it to survive, develop and advance. Unemployment creates and embeds poverty and social exclusion. It leads to low self esteem, poor career prospects, family breakdown, debt and substance abuse. It destroys any feelings of individual and communal pride and self worth as well as creates stigmatised localities where life is made more expensive and unbearable by the lack of mainstream services such as supermarkets and chemists which are necessary for all communities to survive. More worryingly, like in South Africa, the few who are employed, especially foreign nationals, become the target of envy and often sustained intimidation and violence. Unemployment in a developing nation can be an obstacle to social solidarity, cohesion and inevitably peace.
One of the political architects of the New Labour government under the Tony Blair in the UK, Will Hutton, believed rightly that work gave one identity and that it was “the most effective instrument for bringing the marginalised back into the fold.”
“I once used to work as a teacher in Mogadishu,” said one Borama resident who was interviewed over the telephone. “I did not earn a huge amount but I budgeted for my family and every Friday I used to take my children and wife to buy the food we would need for a week. It gave me great happiness, I felt like a father. A real man. Today I wait every month for my brother to send something from America. Something, anything and you can’t ask to get more because you are embarrassed. You can’t imagine my shame and sadness.”
It is always bad practice to use long quotes unless absolutely necessary for the point to be made. However, this quote could not be broken down or edited in any way. It was the genuine raw emotions of a family man who has three children and a wife to support with no income other than what his younger brother in America can spare monthly. The tragedy is that this tale is not unique to this person and speaking to many others living in different Somaliland cities, there are those who live in worse conditions.
Mohammed (not his real name), a business graduate from Hargiesa university has been unemployed since his graduation in 2010. He lives with his mum, dad and three younger sisters. He swears that he is not lazy and looks for work every day, even Friday, when many others are resting and enjoying time with their families.
“I have to find work quickly because my dad has a small business and it is not enough to look after all of us,” Mohammed said. “My dad spent a lot of money on my education but if I don’t work and help him my younger sisters will not go university.” More worryingly for Mohammed he has now been engaged for a year and is unable to commit to marriage even with some support from his family without having his own income. “I think I will get a job soon. I have to because my whole life will begin when I get it.”
The lucky ones who do have jobs in Somaliland are not living large either. Most of them work in the civil service, police force and for local NGO’s. Others are employed by the few private companies that exist in the fields of remittance, construction and hospitality. Despite their luck in securing employment, most of these workers, whilst being relatively better off than their unemployed counterparts in a country where there is no welfare state, are poorly paid. This is compounded by the fact that those who work are expected by Somali custom to provide for as much as the family as possible.
“Everybody knows my pay day. My friends, family, shopkeepers, police, just everyone,” shouted Liban (not his real name) over the telephone. “I work only short hours and earn very little but because of my obligation to my large family it is hard for me to start my own life separately. When you work you help everyone. It is hard to watch and see people beg you sometimes in the streets but you have to either be cruel and say no or help if you can. I try to help because I hope Allah (SWT) will be pleased with me and give me something better.” This brotherly love, spirit and the generosity of the Diaspora has helped those living in the self declared independent state of Somaliland to survive. However, this cannot always be relied on and its reliance can create the feelings of dependency and worthlessness that the entrepreneurial and proud people are desperately trying to escape.
The Kulmiye government is lead by a British educated economist who studied at one of the worlds finest centres for his field, Manchester University. The lack of jobs and there importance is obvious to him (unless he did not really study economics as is claimed). It was on the promise of openness, greater democracy, public participation and the creation of jobs that his administration was swept into power by the electorate. In the short time President Silanyo’s Party was in power public sector workers salaries were doubled in most cases through greater efficiency savings and more effective tax collection procedures. But this did not lead to the creation of more jobs or investment as the revenue was rightfully spent on providing a living wage for the existing workers.
The key worry in Somaliland is that without recognition very little foreign investment will come in and whatever drips in will be cushioned with huge concessions that will not necessarily benefit the people immediately. In many wealthier nations the government has advised banks to lend to small to medium sized businesses and start ups in the hope of injecting hope into the consumer and employment market. Present evidence in most of these nations including the UK and USA shows that this has not worked as banks are unwilling to risk their capital at a time of volatile consumer markets. Some governments, like that of Britain are now considering lending directly themselves to these businesses to achieve their goals as retaliation to the uncooperative banks. However, most African nations, let alone Somaliland, an unrecognised state, cannot afford to take this cause of action. Nor can they ask older staff to jobs share or retire from public service duties to provide an opportunity for the next generation as a result of the poor pay and the lack of pension provision to guard against the possibility of absolute poverty. There were suggestions in the London Diaspora business circles that perhaps if the government paid businesses they would be much happier to provide training and jobs for jobseekers. But how will this wishful thinking be funded if Somaliland businesses are not paying their fair share of the taxes in the first place?
What the government can do is encourage employers to pay their taxes and then invest some of this in training schemes that will help jobseekers enter the more productive sectors within the economy. These sectors may not have all the jobs required but what they can do is enter into a joint partnership agreements to train and perhaps keep on as much staff as they can in the hope of securing government contracts to sustain them. Even if trainees are not kept on, the scheme will be good for the social credibility of partner firms who want to seek contracts both at home and abroad. It will also provide the jobseekers with skills, contacts and hope that cannot be gained from sitting in tea shops or at home all day waiting for work to appear. For the government, schemes like these will show that they have not given up on their promise of creating employment for all and this can only be welcome news for a government marred by internal feuds, crumbling support and allegations of nepotism within their own recruitment and retention procedures.
For the proud, productive people of Somaliland unemployment is a curse that has made them reliant on handouts from NGO’s and family members abroad. Work will give many of them back their respect and dignity but it needs to be created and they need to have the skills to take advantage of opportunities that may come in the future. There is a joint responsibility between the government and businesses to achieve this as they will be the biggest losers if they continue to fail.