Harare, Zimbabwe – As soon as Norman Chisunga arrived in Harare in February 2019 from his rural home in Murehwa, an hour north, he knew he needed a job urgently.
He figured his uncle, a trader in Mbare, the oldest high-density suburb of the capital, would not put up with him for long without a job.
And 24-year old Chisunga, who got his high school diploma in 2017, was also desperate for a job, like most of his compatriots. “I wanted any kind of job,” he told Al Jazeera. “There just weren’t any.”
Zimbabwe is in the grips of an economic crisis characterised by a nosediving local currency, inflation, weakening purchasing power, low production and unemployment of up to 90 percent, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
The country – which adopted the US dollar in 2009 to end runaway inflation – had reintroduced the Zimbabwe dollar in 2019, but the local currency is rapidly devaluing against the dollar. Currently, the exchange rate is 400 Zimbabwe dollars to $1.
In April, inflation was approximately 100 percent.
The economic situation has led to unemployment – around 90 percent – and most of the country’s 14 million people do some sort of informal work to earn a living, finding a job is a herculean task.
“I went to the government’s Civil Service Commission and was told there is [a] backlog of applicants and I am applicant 55,210,” sociology graduate Tariro Makanyera told Al Jazeera.
Demands for money or sexual favours
A few weeks after arriving in the Zimbabwean capital, Chisunga’s luck turned around when his uncle found him a job at a local fertiliser manufacturing firm.
But there was a catch; Chisunga would have to pay a “little something”, a euphemism for a bribe, to get the job. It was an offer he could not afford to turn down. “I did not want to go back to the rural areas,” he told Al Jazeera.
For a six-month contract, Chisunga needed to pay $100.“For a six-week contract, I paid $30 [12,000 Zimbabwe dollars at the current black market rate].”
He ended up paying to stay at the fertiliser company for more than a year, carrying 50kg (110-pound) bags of fertiliser on his back daily.
Al Jazeera interviewed a number of young Zimbabweans who said that they had paid to get a job or knew someone who had paid to be recruited.
“I wanted a job at a supermarket and the manager wanted $50 to recruit me as a till operator. I didn’t have the $50 at the time but I really wanted the job,” Tayanana Kuteura, a 24-year old beauty therapist who now works as a shop attendant in the capital, told Al Jazeera.
Young women like Kuteura are sometimes asked to sleep with their male job recruiters.
“I encountered another similar situation in Zvishavane. I was offered a job to manage one of the big canteens there but I had to sleep with the owner. I didn’t take the job,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I know a girl who was infected with HIV [because] she wanted a job,” Kuteura added. “The owner of a new supermarket chain offered her a job for sex. She agreed, got a car and became a manager. But she is now HIV positive.”
Harare-based independent political analyst Rashweat Mukundu said it was tragic that women are forced to have sexual relations with men for jobs, but also pointed out that there are no “mitigation, complaints mechanisms” to deal with this problem. Investigations, he added, “are very weak that no one bothers to take it up with authorities.”
The demand for jobs across Zimbabwe has led to connected, well-positioned people cashing in on the country’s economic crisis to make a quick buck.
A fixer known as Banga works with a top manager at the fertiliser company. He has agents who look for clients in different places and collect bribes from the job seekers to pass on to the manager.
“When you arrive at the company after paying, your job will be waiting for you, Chisunga told Al Jazeera. “The shop floor guys are also in on it, I guess.”
Once-thriving companies have either shut down or are operating below 50 percent of their installed capacity on antiquated equipment, a far cry from the days when Zimbabwe was a promising industrial hub with manufacturing clusters in Southern Africa.
Correspondingly, there are even fewer jobs to go around, making people more desperate. So Chisunga is one of thousands of youths trapped in a cycle of paying to be paid.
“After every six weeks, they were new people. The new people would also pay the $30 for the jobs,” Chisunga said.
“I am sure he [the fixer] was making a lot of money from that. There just was a lot of us coming and going after every six weeks and more when the tobacco selling season opens.”
Zimbabwe’s tobacco selling season opens from March to about August annually and then fertiliser companies set up depots at auction floors to sell fertilisers to the tobacco farmers.
Because they need more manpower, it creates fresh opportunities for fixers to bring in more people – and take their cuts.
In some cases, jobs are reserved for relatives of those in management positions, a regular occurrence in the Zimbabwean labour market.
In a 2021 report on the prevalence of nepotism in the workplace by Industrial Psychology Consultants (IPC), a leading human resources consultancy firm in Zimbabwe, 27.39 percent of participants indicated that there was a high prevalence of nepotism in their organisations.
“The medical services industry is rated as having the highest prevalence of nepotism at 52 percent, followed by the FMCG sector at 42 percent and Media at 40 percent,” the report read.
Experts say the country’s current economic situation has made it a fertile ground for such unethical labour practices.
“Kids born say around 1997 or at the turn of the millennium have never experienced economic normalcy and yet they have their own aspirations,” said Godfrey Kanyenze, founding director of the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe.
“Given the tight labour market, the poverty in the country, the corruption that is there, people become desperate and pay bribes for jobs.
Kanyenze told Al Jazeera that a series of monumental economic mistakes including but not limited to the economic Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1990s, the country’s involvement in war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and land reforms at the turn of the millennium have contributed to the current situation.
“We have not been able to address these legacy issues,” he said. “The economic situation was averted by the adoption of the US dollar and the GNU. Now we are back to square one.”
For now, young Zimbabwean jobseekers consider their ordeal a rite of passage, and a necessary evil.
“If I had not paid something for the job, I never would have gotten it,” said Chisunga. “Some of my age mates are still looking for a job and [I] don’t know that there are straight jobs any more.”