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Pitfalls of culture of pretending to work and pretending to pay

Over the weekend, I entered a furniture shop in Kampala and I was blown away! I had come in with my cousin to look for a gift for somebody.

What we wanted was something small but they say curiosity killed a cat! After not getting what originally we wanted, we started moving around hoping something would catch our eye. The more we moved, the more we realized that we were in a wrong shop. Some furniture looked nice. Others looked too extravagant and we wondered what all the fuss. Then I moved to a corner to see more furniture.

Even though the prices I was seeing were out of this world for me, I hadn’t prepared to see what looked like a wrong figure. In the corner, there was a set of sofas with a matching dining set. They didn’t have all the unnecessary ornaments I had seen on some other chairs and I actually liked them because they were not too decorated with all sort of stuff I had earlier seen. They looked like furniture you can love.

I could see a price tag and looked at it for a few minutes. I thought something was wrong. The price was Shs 150,900,000! I moved closer to be sure I am seeing the figures correctly and that was the price. I smiled wondering who buys such furniture in poor Kampala!

When I posted on my Facebook account, many people like me were surprised but many others said they too had been to that shop and had the same questions. Others even mentioned people’s homes where they had seen such furniture. Of course there are places in Kampala that sell a bottle of beer at Shs 12,000 and that too surprises many people.

Anyway, we had entered the shop towards their time of closure; so, I hung in a bit to see how workers were driving out. Indeed, we were the last people to leave and as we were walking out, some of the workers were leaving too, jumping on boda bodas and I saw one negotiating taxi fares with a conductor and only succeeded at the second attempt. I wondered how a sales agent selling furniture at Shs 150 million can then be negotiating taxi fares.

Are businesses exploiting workers? I wondered whether such an employee caters for the business or they are simply there because jobs are scarce. Do they even love what they do? What is the impact of low pay to the business?

Poor pay was largely more associated with public service but is this creeping into the private sector. When we walked into this shop, the sales agent didn’t come running to us to ask what we needed. They seemed disinterested. Maybe they know their customers so well that we looked exactly who we were — “window shoppers.” When I saw them at the end of their shift, I realised it may have been a motivation issue but this is a private business that has been in existence for years.

Maybe their model works. In many countries, the private sector has always been the epitome of excellent customer service. But then we moved to a supermarket just across the road and the workers went out of their way to see if there was anything we liked. The comparison of workers in a shop that sells stuff at Shs 150m and another for every day products stayed in my mind for a while.

I remembered a story I read somewhere that a public servant had told a visiting UN agency director that at the office where they work, “they pretend to work since government pretends to pay them.”

The result is poor performance and in places like health care facilities, it leads to mortalities. Even though the government is focusing on increasing pay of scientists, if salaries aren’t evened, others will “pretend to work.” One of the challenges in public health facilities is, for example, infections that are a result of cleanliness.

What will happen to cleaners when their salaries are ignored? Aren’t we going to see more infections? Will accountants and other administrators not considered scientists be motivated or they will process millions as payment for their scientist colleagues and then rush to the taxi stage to negotiate fares?

This is a trap that government must avoid. Huge disparities in payment will create unhealthy camps at the workplaces and lead to more people not working than working. Of course I am not saying that doctors should be paid same rate as cleaners but people in “non-science” jobs should be considered too. That way, we will have people working, and not pretending to do so.

djjuuko@gmail.com

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.

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