‘We are cheap labour,’ students in work-based learning say

Zimbabwean students in work-related learning are overworked and underpaid, with most local companies engaging them as cheap labour, students and labour union leaders claim.

According to the unions, this has been the situation for some time, and efforts to engage with the government have been in vain.

In his May Day message, Zimbabwe National Students Union Secretary General Tapiwanashe Chiriga said union members were getting a raw deal when on work-related learning at companies as part of fulfilling their university degree requirements.

But government officials and industry organisations say that, although there are issues that need attention, students should know that they are in industry placements to learn and they should lower their expectations.

Chiriga also demanded that Zimbabwean workers, whom he referred to as “our parents”, be paid in US dollars. All government workers are paid in local currency, but the cost of most goods and services in the country is pegged in forex, he said.

“We take this opportunity to demand fair compensation for all students on work-related learning who remain underpaid and overworked. Just like any other worker, they deserve fair wages,” Chiriga said. He said Zimbabwean workers serve out of patriotism as they are abused, receive slaves’ wages, and suffer unfair labour practices.

Casual employment?

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions President Peter Mutasa said his union, the largest worker umbrella body in the country, has tried to engage the ministry of higher and tertiary education, innovation, science and technology development as well as the ministry of public service, labour, and social welfare about the plight of students on work-related learning, but to no avail.

He also claimed that most of the companies employing students for work-related learning are no longer doing it for the purposes of learning.

“They are taking them as cheap labour. Most of the students are no longer moving through various departments so that they learn about many aspects. They are just being hired for a specific task which is supposed to be [the work of] permanent staff or for casual employees,” he said.

“We have even received complaints of harassment, including sexual harassment and physical harassment. There is a need for a policy in terms of how students on attachment should be treated, as well as what their minimum working conditions should be.”

Mutasa said the higher education and the labour ministries that have not been responsive are supposed to take the lead in coming up with such a policy.

Dr Israel Murefu, president of the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe, which brings together the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce and the Commercial Farmers’ Union, said students must be grateful that they get the chance to learn and should not expect to be treated like a company’s employees.

He said some companies that can afford to pay students during work-related learning to cover transport costs and food can do so, but those who cannot afford it are not compelled to pay.

Murefu said it is necessary for students to be working at companies in cities or towns where their parents or guardians live, or where their institution of higher learning is located to avoid extra costs such as accommodation or relocation.

He said it was not acceptable that students are used to cover for full-time employees as that would affect a company’s productivity because they are there to learn.

“We are not trying to create employment for them, we are creating an opportunity for them to learn. They should focus more on learning than remuneration; remuneration will come when they get jobs,” Murefu said.

“We are not saying they must not be given allowances. Companies that can do so, should. Those who are not able to, are not compelled to do so. It is up to the student. Do you want to learn or not? If you want to learn, you can come when there is no allowance because you are being given an opportunity to learn.”

He said most companies are struggling to pay their workers’ salaries, so it would be difficult to meet the students’ demands.

“Also, if they demand a lot of money, companies won’t be able to afford it. Instead of a company taking 10 students, it will take five. Others will not get an opportunity to learn to finish their degree programmes. They [the students] should focus on learning. Their time shall come,” Murefu said.

Government response

In response, Raymore Machingura, the deputy minister of higher and tertiary education, innovation, science and technology development, said the objective of higher education is not for people to become slaves, but “to ensure that people get skills to develop the country”.

He declined to comment on the students’ demands and referred University World News to the minister. The Minister of Higher Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development, Professor Amon Murwira, was not available for comment.

In 2019, a local human resources firm, Industrial Psychology Consultants carried out a survey to evaluate the attachment experience of students in Zimbabwean universities.

The aim of the survey was to identify the relevance, advantages and disadvantages of industrial attachment as part of the curriculum of the universities in Zimbabwe from the students’ perspective.

According to the findings, only 3% of the participants failed to secure a place for work-related learning, which suggests that the market is successfully absorbing attachment students.

“The percentage of participants that were paid well was less than those that either received remuneration of a low amount or were not paid at all. This leads to a conclusion that students on attachment generally are not paid well,” according to the survey report.

The survey further found that the assignments students received during attachment were challenging to a greater extent (79%). Approximately 21% of the assignments were not challenging.

The survey found that 3% of the participants experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Recommendations included that companies should put policies in place that address sexual harassment in the workplace and that there should be serious consequences for such behaviour.