By Sij Ncube
As Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in celebrating Workers Day on Friday critics said there is little for workers to cheer in the wake of an upsurge in company closures, retrenchments, poor salaries and a general poor working environment blamed on President Robert Mugabe’s economic mismanagement of the country.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the country’s largest and most influential workers’ labour body, has no kinds words for Mugabe and his Zanu PF administration over the poor state of workers and the general state of affairs in industry and commerce.
“From all the corners of the country the message is the same: the worker is getting poorer everyday as both the public and private sectors are failing to pay workers on time,” said Japhet Moyo, the secretary general of the ZCTU.
“The workers are celebrating poverty. Companies are being closed, workers are being made redundant. The list is endless.”
In the public sector there is uncertainty after government issued conflicting statements regarding payment of bonuses.
Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa announced that the government was suspending bonus payments to all civil servants until 2017 citing dry coffers but out of the blue Mugabe rescinded the decision saying he had not endorsed it.
Be that as it may, critics are adamant the government is technical broke and has no financial wherewithal to pay out the 13th cheque save for a financial miracle.
The same government recently admitted it has not been remitting civil servant dues to unions and other, stop-order facilities.
Workers at the National Railways of Zimbabwe last week went on yet another strike demanding their salaries which were last fully paid in June 2014.
The situation is dire in the private sector where in some cases perks of employees are being cut willy-nilly while salaries come when management mobilises cash from debtors and creditors. In most cases the salaries come in bits and pieces and after more than one-half months.
Most firms have removed freebies for their employees such as newspapers, lunch, fuel, airtime, school fees and other allowances in response to the harsh economic climate.
In some cases where companies put in place voluntary retrenchment schemes in desperate attempts to cut costs to remain in business, the packages are taking long in coming, much to the inconvenience and chagrin of former employers who are forced to wallow in abject poverty.
While the country’s Poverty Dictum Line is currently pegged at US$500, an average worker is earning between US$250 and US$300 per month.
Takavafira Zhou, a trade unionist who lectures at Great Zimbabwe University, said the Zimbabwe employees on Workers Day would be mourning the demise of the working class and working conditions from “grace to grass with monotonous regularity” over the past 24 years.
Zhou pointed out that since the introduction of neo-liberal policies in the early 1990s Zimbabwe has witnessed not only the decimation of the workforce and closure of companies but also what he referred as opaque labour law reforms that currently call for reduction of working conditions to market forces of market flexibility which in principle is turning the clock backwards to the notorious colonial Master and Servant Act.
He added that this is also accompanied by unlawful, unilateral and uncalled for retrenchment of workers; unpalatable salaries that do not resonate with PDL; the demise of collective bargaining and unilateral pegging of salaries by employers; continued victimisation and harassment of workers at workplaces; deliberate, unlawful and intentional efforts to destroy unions by employers and government through creation of surrogate unions and non/late-remittance of union subscriptions, among many other things and so called austerity measures.
“At a time when workers are shimmering in poverty, companies are collapsing, and the government purports to be facing limited fiscal space, unbridled high profile corruption and expenditure have become routine rather than episodic. The workers will therefore be mourning such monumental injustice, callousness and irresponsibility; and the reduction of Zimbabwe into a nation of vendors,” he said.
“Zimbabwe workers more than at any other time, must realise the importance of the unity of workers in diversity in order to defend and fight for an improvement of salaries and working conditions History has taught us that disorganised and divided workers cannot meaningfully improve their working conditions. At a time when government has gone to bed with the employers, the workers of Zimbabwe need a greater unity of purpose across union and labour centres divide.”
Abednego Bhebhe, the deputy secretary general of the labour-backed MDC- T, did not mince his words, charging there is no reason to celebrate Workers Day in Zimbabwe.
“It is sad to note that Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world to commemorate the Workers Day when there are no workers, literally, as many have been rendered jobless,” said Bhebhe.
According to Finance minister Chinamasa, over 55 000 workers have lost their jobs in the past three years.
In 2011, 2 130 companies’ closed while 19 191 workers lost jobs. In 2012, 1 464 companies shut down, leaving 20 825 employees jobless while In 2013, 878 companies closed shop rendering 14 499 jobless. Last year 34 firms shut down throwing 9 280 people out of work.
Bhebhe pointed out that a visit to Bulawayo’s once busy Belmont industrial area tells a grim story of de-industrialization where company properties have been turned into churches.
“Bulawayo was the industrial hub of the country, but all has been turned into ruins by none other than the worlds’ oldest and Africa’s third longest serving ruler – Mugabe. There is nothing to celebrate for those still employed, the majority of whom are civil servants, some of them Mugabe’s ghost workers – read militias. Civil servants are depressed and demoralised by poor salaries and uncertainty over their jobs as Chinamasa wants to retrench thousands to manage his ballooning wage bill.
“There is nothing to celebrate as those still employed by private companies face retrenchment, and are not being paid in time or not paid altogether. There is nothing to celebrate as families go hungry since many a breadwinner has been rendered jobless, or is struggling to make ends meet with poor pay, or no pay at all. This is a hallmark of Mugabe’s unmatched economic mismanagement. The Workers Day tomorrow is a sad cruel reminder of the harsh situation facing workers in the country.”
MDC co-president Sekai Holland, in a statement on the eve of Workers Day, said it was sad millions of the Zimbabwean workforce, mark May Day celebrations with uncertainty of the future of the country as the social, economic and political situation remains in intensive care.
Holland said the country’s working class has been reduced to beggars, vendors while millions others have been forced to seek refuge in other countries.
“As parents, most workers are failing to pay for basic medical treatment for their families as medical fees are now expensive and beyond their reach. Hundreds of companies continue to close and lay off workers as the country’s economy dramatically nears collapse. Thousands of workers still fortunate to be employed are going for months without salaries while others are getting half of their monthly salaries as the companies fail to cope with the harsh economic conditions,” she said.
The policy inconsistencies in the Zanu PF government continue with civil servants receiving conflicting statements on whether they will get this year’s annual bonuses or not, Holland noted.
“The same clueless government is pushing for the unemployment of thousands of workers as it moves in to close Telecel Company. The mobile operator employs thousands of people while thousands more benefit downstream from services offered by the company through selling airtime and mobile cash transfers.
“It is a sad period for the hard working people of Zimbabwe that the Zanu PF government has failed to show leadership at such a critical moment,” adding that Mugabe and his wife Grace, should stop immediately their endless and irrelevant foreign trips that benefit no-one but gobble the country’s Treasury millions of dollars of the much need foreign currency.
But as for the thousands graduates being churned out annually by the county’s universities, it’s more of the same; they would dabbling in vending in the streets as there are no jobs in the horizon, probably after 2018 polls.