Strange labor allocations in poor countries

In Malawi, as in every developing country I’ve been to, it’s possible to hire someone to do almost anything imaginable, and to do it by hand. This includes a lot of things that rightly make Westerners uncomfortable since they are far too reminiscent of colonialism. Every residence I’ve visited in Malawi, for example, has someone referred to locally as the “house boy” or “boy” who is a grown man who manages security, maintenance and cleaning (foreigners rightly avoid the local terms, which are even more degrading when uttered by a white person).  You can also hire people to wash your clothes by hand, for example, or to pedal you around on a bicycle, and all of these tasks come very cheaply. This is reflective of fairly massive unemployment in the country, in which a large share of people state that they are “just staying”, meaning they have no job and are just hanging out waiting for one to show up.

So it’s pretty surprising that at least in Zomba there are no baggers at the grocery stores. I don’t mind this at all personally – I don’t like being waited on, and have nothing else to do while I’m being rung up – but it’s an odd choice considering how cheaply you could hire somebody to do it. One explanation is that it might not have any associated returns. While the lines are long at all these stores, and baggers would help, Malawians seem very accustomed to waiting in lines to the point where maybe they don’t put a high price on their own time spent that way. In that case a retailer who has shorter lines would not be able to charge more.

1 thought on “Strange labor allocations in poor countries”

  1. I love reading these short reflections, Jase. I learn something every time, and I each time I know that I am getting an Economists POV of the situation.

    Can’t wait for you to write your first book.

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