Alois Jack (real name), 39, of Mkoba 19, Gweru recounts with agony and despair how last year’s festive season became a nightmare after he unexpectedly received a letter from his employer at a cement manufacturing company notifying him he was one of 60 workers listed for retrenchments.
What started as a “normal day” ended up being one never to forget, for it marked the beginning of the end of his employment as an assistant burner at the company which he had given 13 years of loyal service.
His risky work entailed working near a furnace whose temperatures could rise as high as 2 000°C, sometimes burning his fingers. He was also exposed to carbon monoxide, alkaline compounds such as lime (calcium oxide) that are corrosive to human tissue, crystalline silica which is abrasive to the skin and can damage lungs. Despite all the hazards, Jack has little to show for his toil, but just a sharp decline in his living standards.
After being laid off he had to transfer his eldest child, 15, from a private school in Hatfield, Harare, where he was staying with his parents to a high school in Mkoba, Gweru, because he could no longer afford school fees.
While he had prospects of sending his two other children, one in grade two and the other doing grade zero to the better government schools in Gweru, he now has no choice but to send them to a lower level school in Mkoba high-density suburb.
“I used to rent a four-roomed house, but now I have squeezed all my belongings into two rooms which I share with my wife and three children. I have tried looking for a job but Gweru’s industry is as good as dead. I’m surviving on rearing chickens but there is little profit to be made as too many other people are into this line of business,” said Jack in a despairing tone that betrays his resignation to perpetually struggling to make ends meet.
“Since 2000 I had been employed by a cement manufacturer as an assistant burner — a tough job that exposed me to a lot of heat and dangerous gases coming out of the furnace. But at least I was financially stable.
Was he warned of the impending layoffs?
“Sometime in August last year rumours had it that the company was going to retrench workers forcibly. I never anticipated that I would be one of the retrenchees as I was quite young and experienced. In October the company confirmed there would be retrenchments; this was followed by the letters in November.
I almost collapsed when I received mine; such was my confidence my job was secure.”
After negotiations in which the workers were represented by a law firm, Jack received US$9 000 in terminal benefits in drips and drabs between July and August this year, making it difficult for him to plan. But he owed the company US$2 000 which it deducted from his payout, leaving him with only US$7 000 which he has exhausted.
Speaking with a heavy heart Jack, who has since been diagnosed as suffering from stress and hypertension, says: “I feel greatly let down. Our government makes a lot of noise about black empowerment, yet most of us are struggling, mired in man-made poverty.”
The statistics speak for themselves. According to Retrenchment Board sources, 362 workers were retrenched in October with many firms awaiting approval from the Board to lay off hundreds of workers more.
This brings the number of those retrenched this year alone to more than 5 600, and counting.
This is in stark contrast to the electoral promise by ruling party Zanu PF in the run up to last year’s general elections to create 2,2 million jobs during the run-up to last year’s harmonised elections.
Organisations and companies that retrenched workers last month included Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Belgium Mission, MSF Spanish Mission and Western Transport. Troubled parastatal National Railways of Zimbabwe had applied to retrench 6 000 workers, but later withdrew the application, the sources said.
At least 52 companies have retrenched this year which include the Grain Marketing Board, Zimbabwe Fertiliser Company, Nissan Zimbabwe, PG Industries, Alpha Media Holdings, First Mutual, Tristar, Cargill, Beta Bricks, Tetrad Investment Bank, Stewart Bank, CFI and Metbank.
Companies cite restructuring or downsizing, redundancy as well as outsourcing of services for the retrenchments.
Many workers whose dismissal has been ruled illegal by the courts are yet to receive their dues.
Gift Samanyau, 69, of Rugare high-density suburb in Harare, lost his job alongside 38 other workers in 2005 after fall-out with his employer who runs a stationery company.
Seven years ago, the Labour Court ordered the reinstatement or compensation of the sacked workers, but in 2009 the company offered to pay damages equivalent to five years’ salary in Zimbabwean dollars (Z$12 594) which had become worthless.
He appealed to the High Court, which ruled that payment should be made in United States dollars, forcing the firm to approach the Supreme Court which set aside the High Court ruling, remitting the case back to the Labour Court for determination in March this year.
Since losing his job Samanyau has not been able to fend for his family and now survives on handouts from his church.
“We are surviving by God’s grace. But the biggest pain during these nine years after losing my job and not getting anything is feeling miserable watching my daughter drop out of medical school in 2009. Luckily my brother took up the responsibility and managed to secure a scholarship for her in South Africa where she is now,” said Samanyau.
His small house is surrounded by cabins he lets out, but the money is not enough as his tenants often fail to pay rent on time or, sometimes, do not pay at all.
Workers’ woes are set to continue as the Retrenchment Board said companies still awaiting approval to lay off workers include Crest Poultry Group that wants to retrench 464 employees, Lonrho Fresh Exports (125), Willwovale Mazda Motor Industries (101) and Mimosa (64).
Should all these companies get the board’s go-ahead, 750 more workers would be thrown onto the streets.
In an interview with this newspaper, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union secretary-general Japhet Moyo recently said the wave of company closures and retrenchments would not be stemmed as long as structural challenges affecting the economy are not addressed.
“I do not believe that the trend is going to be stopped as long as you have the same policies, the same pieces of legislation and continued corruption in government,” Moyo said.
Many companies have retrenched but the statistics have not been captured, while some have downsized and closed down sending thousands into the streets.
The economy, reeling from low aggregate demand, falling production and a liquidity crunch, among a plethora of other problems, is now technically in recession after two successive quarters of negative growth.