Malawi's popular gospel musician Joseph Alfazema has quit his singing career, at least for now, for a job as an unskilled agricultural labourer in South Korea where he hopes to earn "lots of dollars."
He is among tens of thousands of Malawians soon to go to South Korea under a controversial employment scheme launched by Malawi's President Joyce Banda to beat joblessness in the impoverished southern African country suffering over 50% unemployment.
Critics fear the downside of the plan could be "modern-day slavery".
But Labour Minister Eunice Makangala has rubbished the fears telling Parliament recently that "it is not modern-day slavery".
The president's plan is to "offer employment opportunities for young school leavers who have nothing to do and [to] address the rising unemployment rates in the country".
Up to 200 000 youths enter the job market every year in Malawi although only 40 000 new jobs are created, according to labour experts.
In Malawi, ranked among the least developed nations on earth, about 40% of its 13-million people live on less than a dollar a day. Foreign aid accounts for about 40% of the government budget.
'Impress the South Koreans'
When she launched the initiative in March, Banda said: "I want them to go and work hard and impress the South Koreans".
Malawi plans to send up to 100 000 migrant workers aged between 19 and 40 years to South Korea, Dubai and Kuwait.
The government has now launched an advertising blitz for vacancies in the hospitality and agricultural sectors.
Alfazema was one of those to first to secure a job as a farmworker.
"I am not dumping my musical career, but I want to go and make more money for me to buy my own equipment," he said.
His career has hit the skids due to his lack of recording equipment and funds to produce DVDs for sale. He last recorded a video two years ago.
The migrant workers to South Korea will earn up to $1 000 a month. That compares to salaries back home which average $100 in both the private and public sectors.
But there are concerns that Malawi could be turned into a source of cheap labour.
Billy Mayaya, head of an NGO National League for Democracy and Development, fears the scheme would lead to "modern-day slavery". "Chances of being exploited are higher, [instead] the government should focus at creating jobs back home."
Lawmaker Steven Kamwendo from the former governing Democratic Progressive Party of late president Bingu wa Mutharika warned the government to be very clear about the terms under which the workers are going before sending them away.
"We always cry about brain drain and encourage Malawians in the diaspora to come back home … yet here we are exporting the cream of our labour force abroad. It doesn't make sense at all," said Kamwendo.
Wiseman Chijere Chirwa, a policy analysis lecturer at the University of Malawi, is just as sceptical.
"Why would an Asian country be interested in Malawi labour?" asked Chirwa. "The danger is that Malawi labour might be favoured for its cheapness, thereby pushing Malawians into ultra-oppressive and ultra-exploitative labour regimes."
But government is adamant the move would be beneficial as workers will send cash home and build up savings in foreign currency.
Labour Minister Makangala dismissed fears of exploitation, telling Agence France-Presse that government labour experts had been to South Korea to assess the conditions and were "generally satisfied".
She added that Malawi was not the first country to export labour, with 16 other countries having signed deals to send migrant workers to the Middle East.
"There are more employment opportunities in Dubai and Kuwait for both unskilled and skilled positions," she added. – AFP