The Day I Fired a Poor Man

(Name, location, age, job title and gender may have been changed to protect identity)

“Your contract finishes in a month. I’m really sorry, but we’re not going to renew it. We’ll pay for your transport and your belongings to be relocated back home from the health center…”

He cried, right in front of me, head in hands on a blue plastic chair in our office. We sat in silence for what seemed like forever. I tried to say something to console him, but it was meaningless.

Opwonya, a health center cleaner worked for us for 4 years, and held the only steady source of income for his family of 5 children. 60 US dollars a month may seem like a pittance, but in Northern Uganda that’s enough to feed your family, and send all of your kids to the primary school at least. Steady jobs for unqualified people aren’t just rare here, they are a precious lifeline.

I can defend myself until the cows come home. Opwonya’s work ethic was poor. He didn’t up to work for days on end without telling anyone. We talked to him, sent warning letters. Less patients were coming to the health center as malaria levels plummeted, which meant not enough work for our staff, and less money coming in to the health center. The health center was functioning well, but was nearly out of money to pay staff. We we had to reduce staffing, just to keep the place above water. The local management agreed that he should go. My job is to provide sustainable, quality healthcare to rural citizens, and this was a hard but necessary decision.

But justification doesn’t make me feel better. The chances of him getting another job are close to zero. His kids may now sit at home and not go to school. His life will be full of new stress and problems.

Its not the first time I’ve made decision like this, and it won’t be the last. When you work with limited resources, trying to make a dent in seemingly bottomless poverty, situations like this will continue to arise. Juggling sentiment with practicality is an ongoing struggle, and with limited resources practicality usually wins. Is it fair that Opwonya lost his job just because he wasn’t a good worker? Perhaps. Is it fair that his life will now be an uphill struggle? No. If he had lost this job in New Zealand, the safety net would have kicked in, and at least provided enough for his family to live on. His kids could still go to school.

I may or may not have done the right thing. Regardless, it hurts. I consider my easy life, and overwhelming privilege. I ask for forgiveness.

Busy Day at Wii Anaka.JPG



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14 Responses to The Day I Fired a Poor Man

  1. Kaye says:

    Really feel for you Nick – sometimes the hard decisions have to be made, in order for positive change.

    • ntlaing says:

      Thanks Kaye. Have been reading all the newspapers you sent us and the sweets are already destroyed. Thanks so much for the sugar and information boost 🙂

  2. Pauline Elliott says:

    Hi Nick, You did nothing wrong. You did the best you could in a difficult situation. May the Lord bless you in all that you are doing there.

  3. Hugh Mould says:

    Thinking of the long term outcomes for the lives impacted and changed by the on going work of that clinic may be hard, in the face of the known casualty of fiscal prudence, but in the grace of God the family was fed and educated for four years on an income which was fair for labor of a higher standard. No not blindly generous without measure- but we live in the now and not yet of the kingdom.
    The Lord’s Justice is your peace and the future is the Lord’s.

    • ntlaing says:

      Thanks Hugh very wise and positive! Without understanding the bigger picture, there’s many situations we just couldn’t cope in that’s for sure.

  4. Cherie Clark says:

    I appreciate your concern. We had a very large program in India and we had many women employees who would not have otherwise found employment. Letting a large number go was difficult and they had been outstanding workers but our focus was changing as was the budget. I will be leaving Uganda in May and am with GHSP part of the PC and I have two employees that I will also need to let go of with no idea where they can find work in the future. I think the driver will do well but the other girl I will need to work to find someplace. I honestly feel your pain and sadness it is very difficult in a poor country. and when you know that prospects are not good. You hopefully have done what is best for the rest of the employees, to show them that work does matter and you have done what is right for your organisation. By sharing you have also allowed the rest of us to ponder what lies in front of us.

    • ntlaing says:

      That’s very insightful Cherie thanks for adding some depth to the message. Letting go and moving on is never easy, but it is often necessary.

  5. Your feelings make complete sense. As someone who used to live in Gulu I’ve had to deal with similar situations and will continue to as I work now in Jinja. But you also need to consider what message it sends by continue to employ someone in that case. $60 a month is more than most in the area are making so what message does it send to the community when sub par work is accepted? Does it encourage others to work hard or hope that they get lucky and are hired by NGOs (whites)? I saw first hand people being hired because they were poor and then paid above average salaries yet those people were not grateful. In fact they felt entitled for more. They knew the work they were doing was not worth the wages. It was charity. It reinforced the idea that whites and money and blacks don’t. They knew they were pitied and like any human being they were not grateful for that. Your actions with the people you work with are not in isolation but also create a culture in the entire community. People will not like me saying this but knowing how much I am sure you care for each worker (as all people in your situation do) the right decision may have been letting them go a lot sooner than you ultimately did.

    • ntlaing says:

      Thanks for that James some great insights. You are right that creating the culture at work places is one of the most important things, both with positive actions, and with tough decisinos when need be. I wasn’t actually the one that hired them originally (they were there before I came in), and their wages were fair by local standards, not inflated which is something I’m passionate about. Check this out to hear a rant about it 😀 . I understand $60 seems like too much for a cleaner, but keep in mind I changed numbers and positions etc. for anonymity reasons ;). You might well be right that letting go of them earlier would have been better, but its never easy!

  6. JJ says:

    You spoke to him about this and sent him letters but still he provided no legitimate reason for not showing up to work at all? Assuming you set the proper expectations, provided some feedback about the issue, and that there is nothing necessarily preventing him from doing his work then it’s nobody’s fault but his own.

    There are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people all around you in every direction who are in the same exact financial situation as he is, but potentially a worse situation because they weren’t lucky enough to get that opportunity.

    In organizations/companies, dismissals are an inevitable part of work. Given that, I find these dismissals to be the easier of what is a tough situation. The harder ones are when you have to fire someone with the same financial situation who has gone way above and beyond in their work.

    Correct, there is no safety net in Uganda. That is all the more reason to ensure as best you can that you don’t need one. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like he cared about the job or the $60/mo very much.

    This is potentially WHY NGOs have to pay higher salaries. They are competing for a small pool of people who understand that this sort of behavior is not acceptable. Even if they paid half the salary, they cannot afford to bare the cost of training and onboarding someone for them to do unacceptable things like this. Not that I know anything about the situation, but continuing to pay this person after the 2nd instance is a demonstration that the behavior is acceptable and that is a major part of the problem in the workforce here.

    • ntlaing says:

      Thanks JJ I whole heartedly agree apart from one point. He definitely cared about the $60 a month an enormous amount, just that he didn’t demonstrate that with his work. Your insight that continuing with people who don’t work well demonstrates to others that the behaviour is acceptable to other people is excellent.. Your post on NGO salaries on the other hand, I’ll give a full reply soon :D. Thanks so much for your incisive input!

  7. Myriam says:

    Hugs Nick, that’s all i can say. Tough situation.

  8. Pingback: The Second Half – Jemma Balmer

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