Things looking up as 2.1 million Kenyans back to work after Covid mass layoffs

Businessman and female colleague wearing protective face masks [Courtesy]

More than two million Kenyans who lost their jobs at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year had landed jobs by the end of March 2021, reflecting economic recovery.

The latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that as at the end of March, there were 2,495,541 unemployed working-age Kenyans aged between 15 and 64.

This is almost half of the 4,637,164 Kenyans who were unemployed by the end of September last year, according to KNBS’ Quarterly Labour Force Report released on Tuesday.

While the employment data shows an improvement in the labour market, with a majority of those who had been rendered jobless by the pandemic making a come-back, the employment levels in the first quarter declined.

The data shows that there were 17.8 million Kenyans in employment in the first quarter of this year, compared to 18.1 million people in the fourth quarter of last year, an indication that some people might have fallen out of the labour force.

This means that in addition to not engaging in gainful employment, they were also not captured as unemployed because they were not, in the strictest definition of unemployment, actively looking for work.

The unemployment rate (not using the strict definition) was estimated at 12.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year, down from 14.3 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year.

“The survey revealed that the overall employment to population ratio in the country, for the working-age population (15-64 years), was 63.7 per cent in quarter one of 2021 compared to 65.0 per cent recorded in the previous quarter, and 64.4 per cent recorded in the same quarter of 2020,” said the report in part.

This even as the economy began to open up after a dark period in which much of the economic activities had been restricted by the stringent measures aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus disease.

In April, for example, the government restricted movement into and out of some counties while also imposing a curfew between 7pm and 5am.

This slowed down economic activities.

Except for a few containment measures such as the night-time curfew, several of the containment measures have since been rolled back, even as the country ramps up the vaccination programme in what is aimed at fully reopening the economy.

Last year, the size of Kenya’s economy in monetary terms, technically known as the gross domestic product (GDP), shrank by 0.3 per cent due to a downturn in the education and hospitality sectors, which were hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, by the end of last year, the economy seemed to have turned a corner after contracting in two successive quarters. GDP grew by 1.2 per cent in the fourth quarter.

The size of the economy contracted for the first time in two decades last year following a tumultuous period in which the pandemic killed businesses and rendered thousands jobless. 

The latest Economic Survey 2021 shows that the economy - measured GDP, or the size of the national cake - shrank by 0.3 per cent last year, with the value of goods and services produced amounting to Sh8.71 trillion compared to Sh8.74 trillion in 2019. 

The Economic Survey also showed that the number of employed Kenyans decreased to 17,405,200 from 18,142,700 in 2019.

A big chunk of those who lost their jobs were those in the informal sector, including jua kali artisans and mama mbogas (greengrocers). 

Those with permanent jobs fell by a tenth (187,300), to 2,741,100 as a lot of companies offloaded employees to stay afloat. 

Released five months late, the Economic Survey 2020, paints a picture of a battered economy that was saved by the swathes of farms around the country even as factories grew silent and hotels shut down. 

Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani while confident that the economy would pick up this, said its performance last year was adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which resulted in significant slowed down economic activities.

“During the review period, the government’s priority was to safeguard citizens’ lives while at the same time cushioning the economy from the effects of Covid-19,” said Yatani.

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