HARARE, ZIMBABWE — For at least a decade, the Zimbabwean government has been fighting an invisible problem.
Retired civil servants, people appointed to fake positions and even workers receiving multiple salaries for doing just one job – all of these people receive salaries from the government. None of them perform any work.
They are known as ghost workers.
“It’s a kind of fraud,” says Jonathan Wutawunashe, secretary of Zimbabwe’s Public Service Commission.
And it’s expensive. Zimbabwe’s civil service wage bill accounts for more than 90 percent of the government’s total revenue. It’s not clear how many ghost workers are on the payroll, but a 2010 audit found that there were close to 14,000. A 2015 audit found that far fewer people – 3,500 – were earning money without working, but that’s considered a conservative guess.
“The figure we are getting is an underestimation of what is really happening,” says Janet Zhou, executive director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, a social and economic justice organization.
The problem exists across the continent. A 2015 report by Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization, found that Nigeria’s defense ministry had 24,000 ghost workers on its payroll in 2004. That same year, a staff screening exercise revealed an extra 40,000 ghost workers in the government’s official records.
In the past, youth officers who graduated from Zimbabwe’s six-month National Youth Service Program became synonymous with the ghost worker phenomenon. The workers, who were between the ages of 18 and 35, were often placed in government agencies and schools around the country to gain work experience after graduating from the program.
But Raymond Majongwe, who now works as the secretary general of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, says his time in the program didn’t go as expected.
During his time in the program, he says, people sometimes came to school early in the morning, but then left and returned at the end of the day, he says. Others were more brazen, showing up only to collect their paychecks.
“Nobody knew what they were doing there,” Majongwe says.
Ghost workers create a tense work environment for people who worry that the government, known for its harsh crackdowns on political opponents, is using them as informants. Employees are often suspicious of one another, he says.
“There is a sense of fear and terror because people do not know who they are working with,” Majongwe says.
Wutawunashe says the youth officers were officially employed by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Youth, Indigenisation & Economic Empowerment and should not be considered ghost workers. He says that more than 3,000 youth officials were recently retired to save the country an estimated $1.6 million per month, according to figures in the 2018 national budget. (Zimbabwe’s fluctuating currency situation makes it difficult to pinpoint the actual savings that the 2018 estimate would now represent.)
The Public Service Commission has promised to implement policies to curb the growth of ghost workers. Wutawunashe says the commission introduced an inspectorate that “will make sure that what is on the pay sheets corresponds to the people who are working at their work stations.”
Despite the promises, the data shows a lack of results. Between 2012 and 2016, 63,000 more people were hired in the public services sector, despite a freeze on recruitment by the government.
In November of 2018, the minister of Finance and Economic Development announced that the government would introduce a biometric payroll registration for civil servants to address the issue of duplicate workers in January of 2019, a long overdue solution.
“A biometric way of recording the civil servants would be the best way of figuring out who is employed by which ministry and the qualifications they have,” says Tafadzwa Chikumbu, a socio-economic analyst at Zhou’s debt and development coalition.
But almost six months since the announcement, there is still no sign of the registration program. Some people are beginning to lose hope.
“This has been happening for many years, and we don’t have an assurance that something will be done,” Chikumbu says.
Linda Mujuru and Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, both GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.