HARARE City Council, which runs the capital’s fire department, said the city lost 125 “highly-trained” firefighters last year who left to chase more lucrative jobs overseas, mostly in Middle East Gulf states, where they are paid over seven times more.
Council spokesperson Innocent Ruwende made the shocking revelations, which come as the public has been accusing the key emergency first responder of failing to execute its duties.
In November, Harare’s fire department was heavily criticised over a penthouse blaze that cost the life of investment banker Douglas Munatsi.
Ruwende told Al Jazeera that Zimbabwean firefighters “are in demand because they are highly trained,” he said, hence the need for the to be paid better wages to stem the crippling brain drain.
Ruwende revealed that on the healthcare front, pregnant women in Glen View and Budiriro, both high-density suburbs south of Harare, no longer have antenatal care at specialty clinics because there are no nurses on staff to provide those services.
“Specially trained nurses such as antenatal ones have left to look for better opportunities elsewhere,” said Harare City Council spokesperson Ruwende, adding that he’s looking for partners to provide funding in United States dollars to hire increasingly scarce talent.
“People prefer to earn US dollars and they are refusing our offers for jobs,” he said.
Acting Chief Fire Officer Clever Mafoti acknowledged that an exodus of firefighters is having an impact, he insisted the service is still there for the people of Harare when it counts.
“Our ability to execute our duties has been ailing or diminishing but we are still able to fulfill our duties,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have not reached a stage where we have failed to discharge our duties and just let people’s properties burn to the ground.”
He said financial constraints are taking a toll beyond personnel shortages – specifically with ageing fire trucks.
“[The city] council has promised us some vehicles, but as you know, this is normally a process,” he said.
Samuel Chikengezha, a 35-year-old fireman, reckons the solution to his financial woes is to leave Zimbabwe for a higher-paying job abroad.
“I want to leave the country. Every one of us wants to leave for other countries. We are all in waiting mode, really,” he said. “Once an opportunity presents itself, I am out.”
The allure of a more lucrative, more stable payday abroad is an enticing proposition for Chikengezha, who currently brings home $200 a month.
“Entry salaries [abroad] are somewhere in the region of $1,300-$1,500,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s economy was already on its knees before the pandemic struck, and COVID-19 has only made things worse.
Salaries are stagnant, foreign currency is in short supply, and the purchasing power of the Zimbabwean dollar continues to erode, with annual inflation topping 60 percent at the close of last year. Manufacturing is low, and poverty is rising along with prices for everything, including essentials like food and fuel.
Now the economic carnage is threatening essential public services by triggering a massive brain drain in critical sectors.