Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, despite the fact that this 'red island' off the southeast coast of Africa evokes images of unique flora and fauna. What’s it like for a young person to look for a job in this former French colony?
Figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for the year 2015 show that more than 85 percent of Madagascar's active population is employed, but these figures are misleading, according to Dera Hervé Razanakoto: “It is very difficult to be considered as unemployed according to the definition they use”.
Dera manages a platform that brings together private and public training centres and vocational schools in Madagascar. “In reality, more than 80 percent of the people who are employed according to the ILO should not be in that category”. These people work in the informal sector, are subject to poor and unsafe working conditions, are underpaid, etc. Women are worse affected than men in this respect. According to Dera, helping these people find decent work is the biggest challenge facing the country.
Nevertheless, Dera remains positive. “In 2014, a law on vocational training was voted on and is now being put into practice”, he says. There is a focus on public-private partnerships, and Dera's platform plays a major role in implementing them, while maintaining close contact with the government.
“I still hope to succeed in life”
Pierre Aimé Rasolomampionona is 31 years old, but he has been unable to find a permanent job. He lives together with his aunt Marie Agnès Raharisoa in Mahajanga, a coastal city in northern Madagascar.
You won't find Pierre in the official unemployment figures. He is currently attending a part-time chef training course at a local Don Bosco school, one of the many private vocational schools that receive financial support from VIA Don Bosco, a Belgian NGO that is committed to improving the quality of vocational education, managing schools and guiding former pupils into the labour market. In 2017, VIA Don Bosco invested more than €445,000 in projects throughout the country, with money from the Belgian government and with their own resources such as gifts and bequests. As the Malagasy government does not provide any funds for these vocational schools, the support is essential.
According to Pierre's aunt, a former French teacher, his insufficient knowledge of French means that he misses out on jobs. She is 66 years old and still attended school at the time of Madagascar’s relatively peaceful independence from France in 1960. “Young people are so bad at speaking foreign languages these days”. She is embarrassed and looks away when the timid Pierre struggles to answer some questions in French, reverting to his Malagasy dialect.
“I still hope to succeed in life, despite all the setbacks”, he says. Pierre talks about his past. He grew up in rural Madagascar, dans la brousse, and one day he and a cousin decided to find their way to Marie Agnès, and a better life. He is not the only one who is taken care of by his aunt, ten other young people also stay in her house and in the tent in the garden where she used to give free French and English lessons to local youngsters, together with her late husband.
His aunt tries to explain to us what life dans la brousse means when we ask why Pierre never knew his father: “Single 16 year-old girls in rural areas are likely to be pregnant before long, that’s the way things are”.
What makes the search for work so difficult here? “If you don't bribe someone, you have little chance of finding a job”, says Pierre's aunt. “That's the way it is. Pierre is a good worker, and quite handy, explains his aunt, “and I admire that”, although it is clear that she is particularly enthusiastic about intellectual capacities and only wants to give Pierre a compliment.
Pierre really wants to find work and move out the house. “I love someone, but she still lives with her parents. I would love to become a famous chef, marry her and have children. I want to live my own life”.
“We used to listen to the Japanese, now it’s the Chinese”
The minimum hourly wage in Madagascar - for those lucky enough to get it - amounts to 767.4 ariary (674.6 ariary in the agricultural sector), the equivalent of around 20 euro cents. It should come as no surprise that countries like China and India have been developing their activities in the country in recent years. And yes, life is cheaper in Madagascar, but the low cost of living does not compensate for the extremely low minimum wage, which few are lucky enough to receive.
At SOMAPECHE (editor’s note: Société Malgache de Pêcherie) in Mahajanga, several former pupils of the local Don Bosco school have found employment. They earn an average of 190,000 ariary a month, just under €50, working for industrial fisheries, a little more than their colleagues who don’t have qualifications. The former pupils mainly work at the ten reefer containers that remain on-site and keep the catch, primarily shrimp, cool before it is shipped.
It is not ideal and it remains a low wage, but they can prove themselves here.
“Most former pupils don't stay long”, says Monsieur Frank, who has been in charge of the staff at SOMAPECHE for eight years. “It's not ideal and it remains a low wage, but they can prove themselves here. A job here is a first step on the ladder.” He is a short man with a cheerful nature, undoubtedly helped by the fact that he and his assistant escape the heat outside by staying in his office, where a mobile air conditioning system runs at full power all day.
The management of SOMAPECHE is Chinese and when several managers arrive in a luxury car during our visit, they look at us with suspicion and interest. “We used to listen to the Japanese, now it’s the Chinese”, Monsieur Frank jokes, to break the tension.
“Even if we don't like it here, we should stay”
The local Don Bosco schools, spread throughout Madagascar, work hard to help their former pupils find work. In Ivato, near the country's largest airport, there is a national employment office that supports all local schools in the country and, for example, contacts them if vacancies are available.
As such, 36 year-old Jean Rémi Telo Zarafidisoa ended up in Burundi, where he worked for two years. He came back 5 years ago and immediately started teaching at a Don Bosco school in Mahajanga, where he had been a pupil himself. “I now have colleagues who used to be my teachers.” Why did he return from Burundi after two years? “It was a good job. There were seven of us from Madagascar, including six former pupils, who set off for Burundi to work on machines. But when we were told out of the blue that our pay would be cut in half, I left”.
The Don Bosco network does a lot to protect former pupils against such practices, but it is powerless in other countries. Is Jean Rémi happy that he is back in Madagascar? “Well, it is our country, and even if we don't like it here, we should stay.”
This article was previously published by Knack/Le Vif online
The visit to Madagascar was made possible by VIA Don Bosco, a Belgian NGO that supports projects in the country to support underprivileged young people towards decent work and a better life.