Zimbabwe banking sector in turmoil

A DARK cloud is hovering over the banking sector as financial institutions are shutting down branches as a cost-cutting measure as they embrace digitisation, rendering hundreds of workers redundant in the process.

Melody Chikono

More than 300 employees have lost jobs across the sector, with at least 25 branches having permanently shut down since 2019.

Zimbabwe has become highly informal, leaving the formal employment rate at just 5%, making it difficult for workers who lose jobs to be absorbed in other sectors of the economy.

The job losses are worsened by the shrinking of the financial services sector amid changes ushered in by a technological revolution which is replacing human labour, posing a gloomy outlook for workers who risk retrenchment.

There have also been misgivings in the market on the impact of the branch closures as the e-channels being adopted, based on internet banking and technological apps, may not necessarily offer better utility than, for instance, the ordinary USSD platform.

Businessdigest understands that Cabs, Standard Chartered, FBC, FCB (formerly Barclays) and CBZ have shut down around 25 branches since last year, with a voluntary retrenchment scheme at Standard Chartered alone having claimed 55 jobs.

On Tuesday this week, FBC told its customers it had temporarily shut down its Southerton and Chitungwiza branches, urging customers to rely on e-banking or other branches in Harare.

Analysts say although digitisation should be celebrated as it modernises the financial sector in line with global best practice, there are many challenges.
Bankers Association of Zimbabwe (BAZ) president Ralph Watungwa this week told businessdigest that the problem is that the troubled economy is hampering the banks’ good intentions.

“The issue of employment is not necessarily a banking issue but a country issue where industry should have been developing enough to accommodate the redundant people from the sector. Through digitisation, some industries will be growing, for example those that supply the USSD platforms. Ideally, in a normal economy you do not see redundancy. They would go to other industries that would be growing. Our problem in Zimbabwe is that no other industry is growing and therefore it has a negative impact as those that are made redundant in the banking sector may find it difficult to find alternative employment. The good news is that most of these people in the banking sector are very sophisticated thus are employable. He said Standard Chartered only has four branches in the whole of UAE (United Arab Emirates) and because the economy generates jobs no one complains,” he said.

Watungwa said globally the banking industry is catching up with digitisation for the convenience of customers as well as cost cutting.

“The costs have been too high for example being charged ZW$2 to 3 million per month at the same time you will be using a generator. If you compare that with a bank that has digitisation, it becomes terrible for the bank which has not embraced digitisation. Mobile banking works normally on USSD platforms. We partner with them to be able to offer our mobile services. For example, someone who uses a laptop uses online services while those who have phones prefer mobile banking. Even now, banks are offering not only USSD but you can now do anything on your mobile,” he said.

The Zimbabwe Banks and Allied Workers’ Union (Zibawu) Secretary Shepherd Ngandu said it was unfortunate that this automation was being foisted on customers.
“You are hearing that most banks are going paperless and no longer encouraging interaction with customers. Covid-19 aside, customers should have a choice. Naturally this paints a gloomy outlook for workers who risk losing jobs through retrenchments.

“This is exacerbated by the fact that generally the financial services sector is shrinking owing to the technological revolution which is replacing human labour. The issue of the ‘future of work’, which was central at our last congress in July 2019, is unavoidable but we believe it has to be implemented in a socially responsible manner respecting the interests of all stakeholders, including staff and customers,” he said
“The banking industry has been for some time automating. This year, despite Covid-19, we are happy that not many employees have lost their jobs as a result of restructuring induced by automation. We were made to understand, after raising our concerns particularly for FBC, that all employees from affected branches will be absorbed within the group. Last year employees lost jobs at FCB, Standard Chartered, Cabs, CBZ and BancABC, but this year it has not been the same, maybe employers are feeling benevolent due to Covid-19.”

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