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COVID-19 has exposed business’s ability to deal with emergencies

The Federation of Uganda Employers (FUE) is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The Federation’s Executive Director, Douglas Opio, spoke to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about the long journey and a wide range of employer-employee issues in the country.

The Federation of Uganda Employers (FUE) is celebrating 60 years this year. What did you set out to do and how has been the journey?

The Federation of Uganda Employers is a member-based organization which was originally established in 1958 but became legally registered in 1960. At the time, we were called the Society of Employers but, in 1961, the name was changed to the Federation of Uganda Employers. We were initially established to ensure good working relationship between employers and employees. But our mandate has since been broadened. We now look at issues such as good employer practices which led to initiatives such as the “Employer of the Year Award,” now in its 20th year. The idea is to document good practices from employers so that others can learn and probably make their own businesses better. The other initiative is the women in leadership programme. We realized that much as there are many women in the work place, there are not many in managerial positions. We, therefore, came up with the “female future programme” in 2011 to extend trainings to future female leaders in leadership development, board competence and rhetoric. We also run business support solutions such as recruitment, training as well as supporting young people to start sustainable businesses.

The federation has membership of about 617 firms and businesses across Uganda.  What explains this small number considering that there are thousands of businesses countrywide?

Most people still see membership organizations such as ours as an unnecessary cost. Others think that they can still benefit from the federation without joining. For instance, if labour laws change, the laws change for everyone and so they don’t have to be members. Secondly, there is a challenge of appreciating the importance of systems. Most of our local businesses and even sometimes the foreign ones that operate here don’t necessarily have systems and they don’t see the need to join the federation. Other employers simply see joining the federation as an inconvenience. So, you find an organization operating without a human resource manual while another is not keen on risk mitigation.  Interestingly, some organization only join the federation when they are in trouble. The other challenge is that some people do not simply know about us, and we are now trying to create that awareness.

Wage levels in this country remain quite low and there have been several debates in regards to the issue of a minimum wage for workers in this country. What is your position on this issue?

The debate on the minimum wage is a healthy one to have because pay is one of the most important determinants of productivity. Essentially, employee motivation determines how much effort they put in the work they do. If their heart is in it, then the results will be higher. So, from an employer’s point, we see discussions around the minimum wage as very healthy. What we are only concerned about is that the minimum wage should not be set arbitrarily. In other words, nobody should come one day and say, for instance, in Uganda, the minimum wage is Shs 300,000. It must be a negotiated process. Our proposal is that each sector should be looked at as a unique sector. A sector-based approach is more reasonable because then you negotiate based on the conditions of work in that sector. If you set a very high minimum wage, for instance, in the labour-intensive agriculture sector where wages are a very important factor in the operations cost, you might put the sector into problems. You will have a lot of black market dealings where somebody will say, this is the minimum wage but if you insist on it, maybe you will not have the opportunity to work here.

On the issue of productivity of Ugandan workers, what’s your take on the perception among employers who claim that Ugandan workers are not as productive as their Kenyan counterparts?

First, that study which compared Ugandan workers with their Kenyan counterparts has severally been misrepresented. That study was comparing Kenyan tea workers with their Ugandan counterparts. So it is erroneous to use this comparison from the tea sector to apply it to other sectors.  The fact that I can’t pick tea very fast does not mean that I can’t perform as much in other work spaces. But, what is true though is that most employers have questioned the average Ugandan’s work ethic. Most employers are concerned about our attitude towards work. But productivity is not only a function of the human resource; it is also a function of other elements such as skill and the equipment used to do the work. If I work in a factory that is more automated, my productivity by default will be way higher than one who works in a less technologically advanced workplace. So there are other constraints to productivity rather than just saying Kenyans are far better. Ugandans are competent, no doubt about that, but that does not negate the fact that we still have gaps that the government needs to fix.

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