Professor Chijere Chirwa critiques Malawi labour exporting initiative: New Theba?

A labour expert with vast experience in labour migration, University of Malawi (UNIMA) professor Wiseman Chijere Chirwa has examined President Joyce Banda’s job creation initiative that will see 1000 youths in the country going to South Korea to be equipped with agricultural skills.

According to President Banda, who launched the initiative on Friday, it is set to promote young men and women aged of 19 – 25 to be self-reliant as they will be trained in agriculture and livestock development by South Korean agricultural experts.

But Chijere Chirwa, who is also a renowned social political commentator and historian, said there is need for proper legal and policy frameworks, the reintegration mechanism and the need for dealing with the issue within the wider context of employment generation and national human resource development.

“One of the critical questions Malawi will need to ask and answer is: why would an Asian country or countries interested in Malawian labour? Don’t they have more reliable alternative sources closer to home? The danger is Malawian labour may be favoured or preferred and sought after for its cheapness,” Chijere Chirwa observed.

Minister of Labourt, Makangala: De
Minister of Labourt, Makangala: Delegation to discuss with South Korea on condiitons

“We are therefore likely to enter into agreements that entrench the concept of the cheapness of Malawian labour. In fact, no employer from such far away country would invest in an expensive source of labour. It would be the cheapness of the source that would be the attraction. The result would be pushing Malawians into ultra-oppressive and ultra-exploitative labour regimes,” he pointed out.

The academician said the exportation of labour should be in synchrony with the internal labour demands as determined by Malawi level of development.

“The exportation of cheap, unskilled labour may be beneficial in the short-term in the sense that it will bring in some much-needed foreign revenue, but in the long-term, it will not do us any good.

“We may benefit more by developing our human resource to match the demands of the modern economies, and exporting semi-skilled and skilled labour on competitive terms. It is also easier to reintegrate semi-skilled and skilled workers than it is to accommodate retiring and aging cheap manual labour that has been over-exploited elsewhere – that just becomes a burden on the national economy and its social structures,” argued Professor Chirwa.

Malawi has previous exported labour during the times of Theba and Chijere Chirwa who did his PhD thesis on Rural Labour, Mine Migrancy and Rural Transformations, said the exportation of labour to South Korea might be the same concept of Theba but the legal and policy framework, the actual procedures and processes may differ.

“I do not know what legal framework the government is proposing, and where the so-called ‘policy’ will have an enabling legislation. It will be interesting to see.

“My view is that having a policy on exporting labour alone will not be enough. It will require coming up with a concrete employment policy, a matching labour (human resource) development policy, harmonization with the export policy, and unionization policy. May start raising such questions as: are these recruits going to be unionized,” he said.

The professor said arrangements of the type of Theba and Wenela have shown that there is need for clarity of the roles, powers and mandates of three or four interested parties: government, recruiting agencies, employers and employees.

Chirwa noted that the  benefits would include reducing unemployment problems; improving foreign exchange earnings; acquisition of new skills; improving liquidity levels of rural households and increased circulation of money in the rural economy (if recruits come from the rural areas), hence improved socio-economic standards.

Other benefits would be the importation of both consumer and capital goods (migrants return with capital goods such as machines, cars, etc.) widening government sources of revenue.

But he noted that the challenges may include: acquisition of inappropriate skills (skills not needed in the local economy, or even the national economy) depending on the nature or classes of the migrants and the jobs they will be doing; acquisition of lifestyles that may disturb the “conservative” status quo -think of the debate on homosexuality for example, and HIV/AIDS debate in the case of the ex-migrants to South Africa.

He also said there is need to know what type of labour Malawi will be exporting.

“Is it going to be skilled or/and semi-skilled, or raw unskilled cheap labour? The quality of the labour or the caliber of the workers may, to some extent, determine the levels of benefits both at the individual and the national level.”

According to Minister of Labor, Eunice Makangala, the Malawi delegation is set to leave on Sunday for South Korea to discuss working conditions and other modalities with the government of Korea.

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