Unfortunately, Sierra Leone has no official record to show the level of employment. This is a huge concern in a country where laws to protect labour rights and settle employment disputes are comparatively obsolete.
Information officer at the ministry of labour and social security, Lansana Bayoh Sesay, confesses to the myriad of difficulties besetting their efforts at regulating the labour market and settling rights-based issues that are common with emerging and innovative markets.
“It is a big blow that Sierra Leone doesn’t have updated statistics on the employment data in the country. We are, however, currently working on a project called the Labour Market Information System that will give us statistics on employment level,” said Sesay.
A 2014 labour survey report emphasized that: “Creating jobs and improving the quality of jobs are vital to poverty reduction,” adding that jobs are critical to inclusive growth in Sierra Leone, where more than half of the population is poor and most are dependent on labor earnings.
Without jobs, poverty reduction will be an unattainable goal. With high levels of unemployment over the last two decades, according to UNDP records, there are indications that the labour market in Sierra Leone is still facing tremendous challenges in terms of the creation and sustainability of jobs. But capacity too is a common concern among employers and recruitment agencies, some of whom believe that the quality of workforce is in question.
Quality workforce implications for poverty reduction:
Recruitment agencies have said that the absence of quality in the human resource base is a problem for them to meet clients’ specifications of employees they needed. Some of these employers would have to provide inductions and even full scale training for potentials before they are employed.
Some firms like Careers.sl, one of the biggest recruitment agencies, say they cater for high skilled and innovative professionals looking for job. The job-search engine, wherein employers can publish their job adverts and receive applications from a much wider and diverse talent pool, also claimed they are the biggest platform where job-seekers can search through hundreds of job applications and apply to ones that appeal to them.
Also Hughes Security International Co. Ltd, whose line of business includes monitoring and maintaining security system devices, is another recruitment agency in Freetown that specializes in training and deploying security guards to protect lives and property. Its training and recruitment manager, Reverend Samuel During, complains that: “quality is a problem as some employees are rejected by employers who usually want very skilled people,” adding that they however also provide low skilled labour as guards for private homes and offices.
Notwithstanding the quality of workforce, employment is very essential to the sustenance and development of any nation. The stronger and skilled the labour force is, the more productive the country becomes. However, most employments require skilled labour which is a problem in Sierra Leone. The country has a reasonably large labour force but with limited skills to qualify them for few available skilled jobs. Meanwhile, the most recent UN population estimates almost half of the population is below age 15 and more than three quarters are below age 35. At current rate of population growth, this implies new jobs will have to be created for approximately 100,000 labour markets entrants per year.
The need for a labour force environment that can generate more jobs and accommodate their attendant issues will be very crucial. To that end, the ministry (Labour), the labor congress, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other partners are reviewing the country’s labour laws. The information officer at the ministry told this reporter, in an exclusive interview, that they had already completed the review process and were now working with the law officers’ department before it goes to cabinet and then to parliament for promulgation.
Lack of data and problems of low skilled labour
Project coordinator at the Sierra Leone Labour Congress (SLLC), Emmanuel Kamara, said they too had no statistics or employment data on the country and that they relied mostly on statistics provided by other development agencies like ILO and United Nations Development Program.
The high unemployment rate in the country is associated with the lack of domestic skilled labour. The labour force is available but many of them don’t have the required skills to be employed especially by foreign companies investing in the country. This lack of skilled labour has been blamed on the poor educational system in the country. Every year, there are thousands of graduates from the university entering the labour markets in search of jobs. But very small percentage of them, based on what they studied, actually makes the kind of impact that will quickly address the problems of unemployment and poverty reduction in the country.
Graduates, yes, but how many of them have additional skills that give them competitive advantage when some of the courses at the universities do not adequately meet the expectations of emerging and innovative markets?
“There is so much for us to do regarding the human resource base in the country. If they lacked the required skills and education, it will be difficult for them to be employed,” Sesay warned, adding that most of the times companies come into the country and hire experts to work for them, costing them huge amount of capital.
He called for priority to be given to private sector empowerment where people set up, operate startups, create jobs for themselves and others who have acquired skills. To support this sector of the economy, more vocational institutions need to be setup so that marketable skills could be imparted to young people. This could also address social issues in communities where even the menial laborer is desperate to get employed. It may also minimize antisocial behavior associated with unemployment.
The ministry of labour has said they were not oblivious of the short in supply of critical human resources. “We always ensure that whenever experts are brought in the country to work in those critical growth sectors like manufacturing, mining and agriculture we attach locals to them so that they can learn in the process for a smooth succession,” Sesay said.
Is it wages or conditions of service?
There are certain labour issues which have been of great concerns and are still a challenge in the labour market of Sierra Leone. The wages and working conditions of employees have been the subject of many controversial debates. Many workers have said that they do not get the minimum wage for a salary. Some complained that their take home can barely take them home in terms of being able to take care of their basic needs, especially when costs of commodities continue to rise.
SLLC, the biggest pressure group that is supposed to seek the interest of workers – agitate for a decent minimum wage and better conditions of service – has expressed concerns over noncompliance by employers to oblige to the minimum wage provisions in the law.
Its project coordinator, Emmanuel Kamara, told this reporter that “the issue of not enforcing the national minimum wage is most common among cases we often receive. A lot of employers are not adhering to the policy and are paying workers below the amount stipulated by law”.
Kamara’s observation resonates with concerns by the labour ministry. “Before 2015, the minimum wage was Le 21,000, but government increased it to Le 500,000, subject to a tax deduction of 5% and contributions towards national insurance scheme – NASSIT,” said Mr. Sesay in his speech observing this year’s International Workers’ Day on May 1. He added that there were concerns from some workers that they were being paid below the minimum wage of Le 500,000.
“Some employers pay below the minimum wage and in such cases when we find out, our action is that you pay the backlog of salary to the affected employee. Since the law came into being if any employer failed to comply with it we will send the matter to the industrial court for a determination.”
Aside the low compliance rate among employers of paying minimum wage, another issue is that workers, especially in the private sector, have complained about their employers’ refusal to pay their end of service benefits. The country’s old labour laws do not provide for a strong and satisfactory redress mechanism in matters like these.
“Common cases reported to the ministry of labour are that workers are summarily dismissed and even when their services are officially terminated, they refuse to pay them their end of service benefits,” one labour official said, adding that such matters were not only difficult for the ministry to handle, but were now matters for the industrial court to finally deal with.
Remedies and hopes
The project coordinator at SLLC earlier assured that the new labour laws would provide employment security and protect workers’ rights. He said although some of the current labour laws were obsolete, having passed in the 60s and 70s, they had tried to look at them and made the best use of them. He continued that apart from the labour laws generally, they had also called for collective bargain agreement which every work section had signed. Those agreements serve the basis for employment and clearly indicate the terms and conditions for employment. So the agreement in essence would help prevent undue dismissal of workers because there are clearly stated procedures to follow before dismissal.
Regarding the working conditions, according to Hughes Security International Company Limited, they make sure and guarantee that their workers are safe as that is paramount to them.
“We put in place for safe working environment and conditions for our members and make sure they are safe and not prone to danger and disaster,” the training and recruitment said. He added the agency would cover the individual’s medical and housing allowances which would be deducted from their salary. When it is a major health issue, the office takes up the responsibility.