Despite the figures suggesting that Sudan is going through a boom period in some aspects of its economy, there are many important and troubling questions to be addressed regarding the wellbeing of the country’s work force and the living standards of the general population.
Sudan’s economy has expanded rapidly in recent years, due largely to the peace between the North and South and new petroleum exploitation. The average annual growth rate of GDP increased from 4.3 percent for the period 1985–95 to 6.2% for 1995–2005, with the highest growth rates occurring in the past five years. According to the IMF, in 2007 Sudan’s GDP reached US$76 billion, thanks to the oil that has become the major contributor to this high growth rate. The projected average annual growth from 2005 to 2009 is 11.6% (World Bank, 2007). In the IMF rating system for 2007 Sudan ranked 62 in the world economy chart. According to government sources in 1996 the active labor force in Sudan was around 11 million (agriculture 80%, industry and commerce 7%, government 13%). The official unemployment figures reached 18.7%.
However, according to the UN Human Development Index (HDI) Sudan ranks 147 worldwide. Unlike the GDP indicator which is solely concerned with what has been consumed, invested, exported and imported regardless of the quality of life of the population, the HDI considers other factors such as life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and GDP per capita. It is a standard means of measuring a population’s well-being, especially child welfare. The HDI is used to determine and indicate whether a country is “developed”, “developing”, or “underdeveloped” and is also used to measure the impact of economic policies on the quality of life.
FAO (2007) estimated that 24% of the population is undernourished, i.e. nine million people, while 30% are without access to safe drinking water (UNDP 2006). The adult literacy rate in 2004 was 61 percent. The national percentage of the population below the poverty line was 50% in 1999/2000 (over 90% in the South). As of 2005, the gross national income per capita was US$1,949. Given these statistics the majority of the Sudanese population is considered poor by any reasonable standards. The ECHO Vulnerability and Crisis Index score (V/C) puts the population at the most severe rank of 3/38. And Sudan’s external debt, currently at around $28 billion (IMF 2007), is untenable in the long-term.
Economic liberalization in Sudan could be officially traced back to early 1980s as part of the IMF structural adjustment program in the country, and was followed by an aggressive liberalization strategy after 1989. Consequently, in the last two decades, Sudan has become one of the most socially unequal countries in the world. The best estimates are that about half the nation’s income and assets are in the capital Khartoum, as well as about 75% of the country’s health professionals. “The country consists of a middle-income capital city and immediate surroundings, with a hinterland that would qualify as a ‘least developed country’ were it not for the fact that it is actually becoming poorer”, observed Alex De Waal.
The population of Sudan is culturally and ethnically diverse and people have migrated internally for generations. According to UNFPA, in 2007 the population of Sudan was estimated at 37,800,000 with 30% living in Khartoum and the six largest cities, Port Sudan, Kassala, Omdurman, El Obeid, Wad Medani, Gedaref and Juba. According to the formal government records the level of employment in Sudan has reached 17%, other sources in the ministry of work indicate that the number is much higher and it could be as much as 40%.
Historically Sudan’s economy has depended primarily on agriculture, the economy of the centre relied on cheap migrant labor, especially refugees from Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Displaced Southerners have also augmented this labor force since the 1980s. By that time, the main demand for cheap labor was in the towns, especially in the fast-expanding capital Khartoum. However, given the scale of poverty and economic deterioration in Sudan during the 1980s the country was not considered by any standards an attraction for those seeking to enhance their living standards and generate extra income. On the contrary, Sudanese in their millions have migrated to the Gulf countries since the oil boom in early 70s to enhance their living standards. For more than two decades the country was not politically stable and the style of government in Sudan hardly became known for respecting the rule of law, human rights, justice or liberty. And now the majority of Sudanese still suffer from absolute poverty according to international organization reports.
So, what attracts people to work in Sudan now? According Dr Al Fatih Abass, the Work-relations Secretary at the Businessmen’s Union, the country is witnessing economic transformation following the liberalization policy of the 1990s, but this new direction has merciless laws which have no regard to humanitarian principles because it’s based on competition. The private sector have to change their methods to stay in the competition and to get rid of the burdens that slow their success. One of the most important components of this success is to have a skilled workforce and the state should provide such skilled labor or allow for it to be imported from outside the country. There is no way to impose the employment of unskilled Sudanese which tend to make an employer think, “I will loose money and go out of business and the state will not help me”. In his view, Sudanese workers tend to dislike certain jobs for social reasons. Although the country is witnessing economic development this not helped by the deterioration in the skills of Sudanese workers due to the complete collapse of the vocational and technical school education system in Sudan.
Dr Abass also emphasized that any state which wants to achieve economic development must accept dealing with foreign workers, because stopping foreign workers would mean that much of the production in the new industries will stop. The government should also look into its own policies that lead the workers to show their discontent by organizing demonstrations during working hours. All this has produced workers that do not respect work rules and some workers will often leave to attend social events during working hours. More than 80% of evening shift workers say their afternoon prayer in the factory after the working period has started. Then, after a short while they go out for a second prayer, then a third and fourth prayer – this causes a lot of disruption. Dr Abass says, “I am not against prayer but workers should do it inside the factory, but unfortunately they use this as an excuse to go outside”.
The Work-relations Secretary concluded, “If we are really concerned about the Sudanese workers, we have to understand that political and geographical boundaries are vanishing from the global economy; there are many agreements in relation to the freedom of movement for capital and freedom of movement for the work force and the only way to survive is by training our work force to compete in this global market”.
Many leading Sudanese businessmen complain that Sudanese workers are a nightmare, that they are lazy, talkative, do not respect time, etc, and one added, “the Asian workers are superior, they work like donkeys”. Another businessman told of his experience after he was appointed as assistant manager of a company and within six months the company was loosing a lot of money. All of the company employees at the time were Sudanese and he decided that the company was loosing money because of the staff. He then sacked all the Sudanese staff and employed Indian, Bangladeshi, British and Syrian employees.
Mr. Mohamod Ali Khojali, a veteran trade unionist and journalist, thinks the attitude of Sudanese businessmen is disingenuous and does not reflect the whole picture. With their slick rhetoric they try to hide some of the real reasons behind their employment policy. They find foreign workers to be cheap labor – where by law the minimum wage for Sudanese workers is no less than $100 a month, some of these factories pay less than $100 a month for the foreign workers. In his view most of these companies are also not following acceptable practice when recruiting Sudanese employees, where nepotism plays a major role and the employee may get the job despite a lack of qualification and work experience. He emphasized that the work practice of Sudan’s textile factory in the 1970s was exemplary, with a high level of discipline, excellent managerial skills and good worker training programs – facts that in his view refute the businessmen’s arguments. He added that the problem also related to the lack of vocational and technical training in Sudan.
Mr Babiker Al Safi is a qualified mechanical engineer with more than 26 years of work experience but he was sacked from his job in a factory that employs 90% foreign workers from China. Babiker accused the factory’s management of lacking administration skills and academic qualifications and of tending to favor the foreign workers over the Sudanese. Some Sudanese workers like Mr. Al Safi are resentful that the oil only makes foreign workers and foreign companies rich, while it makes his own life worse. He notes that he and millions of people like him won’t share in any of the profits that those oil exports will generate.
Saud Al Barier the President of the Businessmen’s union refuted the accusation that the huge number of foreign workers in Sudan is the responsibility of the private sector and said that, “the Minster of Work has the responsibility”
Mohamed A Hamed, the Ministry of Labor Workers’ unit head, thinks there are two reasons for this phenomenon, “One is external, i.e. globalization, and the second is internal, represented by large development projects in Sudan such as oil that are considered new industries and in need of new skilled labor”. Mr Hamed insisted that there are laws that could regulate this but the laws are not enforced, and now after it has become a major public issue there are efforts to activate the law to regulate the status of the illegal immigrant and give them exemption till end of January”. But, according to Mr Hamed, “this does not mean that we will have a closed door policy against foreign workers, because the country really needs them”.
In an interview with Dr Mohamed Yousif, the state Minister of Labor, he emphasized that the employment of foreign workers in Sudan was regulated by the 2001 foreign workers law, “The labor law is very clear and states that it is not permissible for any company to employ non-Sudanese unless they possess technical skills that are not available in Sudan”. Although that is the legal position, foreign and Sudanese investors tend to favor employing foreign workers, because at the moment the Sudanese workforce suffers a severe lack of skills. According to him the reasons are numerous. Firstly, there’s the migration of thousands of highly trained and skilled Sudanese technicians, doctors, engineers, mechanics, electricians, accountants and lawyers, etc with no replacements for them in the last two decades. Secondly, the scarcity of professional training and sometimes the complete lack of it. There has been a complete collapse in technical and vocational training in Sudan in the last two decades. Thirdly, given the huge demand from the market for skilled workers in areas such as communications and new technology, electricity, roads, oil and farming, our education system is not able to match the demands, argued the Minister. In his view it will be very difficult for the labor ministry to enforce a policy of not employing foreign workers because there is a genuine need for them here in Sudan.
At the moment the Minister does not know exactly how many foreign workers there are in Sudan, but the Ministry is conducting a survey and after 25 years this survey will determine the range of available skills and the composition of the workforce in terms of Sudanese or non-Sudanese. The Ministry of Interior data unfortunately only reflects the number of foreigners in Sudan, but often that doesn’t tell the real story.
Dr Mohamed Yousif described the attitude of some Sudanese businessmen who tend to characterize Sudanese workers as “lazy, and not punctual” as “baseless”. In his view this is mere speculation, and you cannot portray a certain group of people as “lazy” because these “lazy” Sudanese, when they work outside this country or in a good work environment inside Sudan, do not fit that “lazy” stereotype. The Sudanese have trade union rights and some workers might practice go-slow strikes, due to wages and conditions that may not be acceptable. However, given the fact that there is a trend towards globalization we should instill the value ofhts, they might slow down strikes, according to the oney you give them" howver, given the fact there is glob work and diligent time keeping in our workforce, because there might not be the same protection for them in the future. The Minister insisted that Sudanese businessmen should also change their current work ethics and invest in the training of the Sudanese workforce instead of thinking of “making quick money”, because in his view these foreign workers could be unsustainable and might be very expensive to employ them in the future. In the issue of protecting foreign workers, the Minister asserts that they are protected by the law from exploitation like any other Sudanese.
According to the Foreigners Administration Unit in the Ministry of the Interior the number of foreign workers registered reached 80,000 in 2007, and although this figure could be misleading it does give an indication. So how are foreign workers recruited to jobs in Sudan? There are two methods; (a) private companies getting special permission from the Ministry of Work, or (b) the employment agencies, either being contacted by certain business people or companies to import foreign workers for them, or sometimes importing domestic and construction workers, mostly from East Asia.
Sudanese human rights activist are also concerned about the lack of protection by the labor laws for foreign workers. In the last two years many cases of sexual harassment, rape, and inhumane treatment of domestic workers have been reported in the press. Some domestic workers exist in semi-slavery conditions, and they are not free to leave work because they are in debt to their unscrupulous employment agencies. In 2006, a pharmaceutical factory owner in Al Baggier (15 km south of Khartoum) reported in the press that after having a dispute with his Indian workers he imprisoned them in a container. The lawyer, Najlaa Al Mahi, who specializes in labor law, described the current law as “unconstitutional and clearly violating the CPA provisions”. She thinks that there should be equal protection for domestic workers under labor laws. This includes provisions for one day off per week, overtime pay, and other benefits. Standard contracts are not a substitute for equal protection under the law.
Many human rights activists request stronger monitoring of labor recruitment agencies and the enforcing of minimum standards for them. Governments should set clear standards for recruitment fees or eliminate these fees completely, and ensure migrants have access to justice and support services. Migrants accused of committing crimes must have access to interpreters and legal aid and those who suffer abuse should have access to shelter, legal aid, medical care, and temporary residence status. Governments should ensure speedy and transparent mechanisms to resolve wage disputes, and they must prosecute cases of abuse against migrants through the criminal justice system.
The current situation already results in a high level of unemployment in Sudan and this might lead to political pressure on the government to change its current policy in relation to technical and vocational training. The level of unemployment is unsustainable, especially among young graduates and school leavers and in the long run this could be a destabilizing factor if not addressed seriously. One solution that could be recommended to the government is to give tax breaks and exemptions from import tariffs for companies that employ and provide training for Sudanese workers. More tax breaks could be given if the company followed an equal opportunity policy in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, or political views. The government could also control the foreign investors’ conditions on importing foreign workers in their investment contract.
Sudan is a very welcoming country and the voices requesting the expulsion of foreign workers from Sudan are few and far between. Many politicians, trade unionists and businessmen understand the logic behind the need for foreign workers in Sudan and the country’s booming economy without a doubt need them desperately. However balanced and rational policy desperately needed to replace the current chaotic situation. The law regulating work in Sudan needs to be transparent, and just in protecting foreign workers rights, and also preserving the Sudanese workforce rights to equal access to the current employment market in Sudan.