Are Ugandans are lazy?

By Richard Sebaggala

A few years ago, Ugandan dailies and TV stations reported about a World Bank survey report that cited Ugandans as the laziest people in East Africa.

Indeed, often we hear many observers say that Ugandan workers are “lazy” compared to workers from our neighbors, particularly Kenya. Some commentators, leaping from presumption to prescription, have urged that the high levels of unemployment and poverty that the country is witnessing are as a result of people being lazy.

One commentator in the Daily Monitor of 23 October 2014 said that, “Ugandans are poor because they are lazy; despise work and celebrate mediocrity.”

This description of Ugandans has raised a number of questions. For instance, have Ugandans chosen not to work hard, or sustained hard work is not a Ugandan characteristic? And are Ugandans really lazy or laziness is a product of a bad and non-performing economy?

Economists look at laziness as a choice outcome of people focusing on the pleasant immediate effects of their actions rather than potentially negative long-term consequences. They argue that human beings have a tendency to seek after leisure. Therefore, this is an attempt to inspect the labour statistics of Uganda so that we can understand whether Ugandans prefer leisure over work. 

The labour force participation rate that measures the percentage of the people that actively seek work and are willing to work outside their home, averaged at 80.17 percent between 1990 to 2014; with the minimum being 77.4 percent in 2014 and the maximum being 82.1 percent in 1990. This high labour force participation rate, together with high unemployment, has the potential to discourage workers.

Özerkek (2013) defined a discouraged worker as “one who stopped actively searching for jobs because he does not think he can find work”. It is plausible to assume that most Ugandans of working age have withdrawn from the labor force due to market-driven reasons but not because they are lazy. Therefore, instead of politicians lamenting that people are lazy, they should endeavor to address the unemployment problem.

Another labour statistic that directly measures labour supply is the “hours worked per week”. A recent study by Bick, Fuchs-Schündeln & Lagako (2016) revealed that the average hours worked per adult are substantially higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries. It estimates that adults work 29.3 hours per week on average in low-income countries compared to 19.1 hours per week in high-income countries.

The number of Ugandans who work 60 hours week per week and those with more than one job is increasing. Therefore, it is harsh to label people with such work preference as lazy and poor workers. Rather, it is a manifestation that despite the hard work the returns to work effort is not rewarding enough.

Notwithstanding the above, for many years, contemporary labour economists have tried to ascertain why workers’ attitude to work decline. The choice-theoretic approach to labour market assumes that the choice to work is driven by three factors: relative scarcity, purposeful behavior and adaptability. It argues that people act rationally by comparing the costs with expected benefits in relation to labour market decisions. Therefore, if we consider laziness as labour market decisions, it is possible that what people call laziness is a manifestation that the economy is no longer providing good jobs to ordinary workers and people have no choice. 

Economists also believe that choice between work and leisure is a function of economic incentives. For instance, research suggests that although how long we sleep is biologically determined, the demand for sleep time seems to respond to changes in the economic environment too. Biddle and Hamermesh (1990) in journal article, Sleep and the Allocation of time, concluded that when wage is high, even dreaming becomes expensive. It is foolhardy to expect workers who are not getting a fair share of wages to be hard working.

It should be noted that if the current returns from work are poor, fundamentally workers become uncertain and fearful. I have realized that if you are worried about some basic things of life such as paying school fees, food, rent and transport, among others, you cannot be productive at work even when you are physically available.

Therefore, what people are calling laziness might be a warning that the workplace conditions are not doing enough to bring the best out of the workers. It is true that people can choose to resign from working hard if the conditions are not in place. This puts the ball in the court of government and employers to think how best to make Ugandans productive.

Good enough, the recent World Bank study (2014) using GDP per person to measure worker productivity levels showed that the average output of Uganda’s workers stood at $3,800 compared to Kenya’s $3,400. Thus, the myth that Kenyans are more productive than Ugandans is not true, and it can therefore be argued that what people are calling a lazy Ugandan work force is also a myth.

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