Is social contract dead?

WE can safely assert that government acted unilaterally when it decreed in July that prices of all goods and services should be reduced by half, or at the very least, cut t

o June 18 levels.

This decision was taken without sufficient consultation with business, in the interests of the social contract as envisaged in the three protocols signed on June1.

Although the price reductions could have been a boon for labour given the low wages most workers earn, the unintended consequences by way of empty shelves were entirely predictable.

We can again safely say that government acted in breach of the same protocols in relation to labour when President Robert Mugabe used the Presidential Powers Act to freeze all wage reviews until the end of the year when most workers’ earnings are already far below the poverty datum line and the inflation rate of over 7 600%.

More than that, the workers would not have accepted such a decision, even if they were consulted, given that the prices of most basic commodities are rising daily in both the formal and the informal markets.

The implication is that salaries and wages have not been frozen but have in fact been reduced in inverse proportion as prices of commodities have gone up. This does not augur well for the social contract which, it was hoped, would help economic recovery.

While it is premature to conclude that government is acting in bad faith with its social partners, one cannot avoid that temptation given the heavy-handedness with which it has dealt with businesses which have been accused of defying its price decree.

Unfortunately, both business and labour have reacted amateurishly to government’s gangsterish bullying. There are unconfirmed reports of firms not restocking goods to avoid being burnt twice.

Labour for its part has announced a two-day stayaway next week to protest the wage freeze. In other words both are reacting individually, rather than nationally, to government’s irrational behaviour.

To us this response is only correct as a political gesture. Both business and labour want to be seen to be doing something rather than actually doing something that will force government to change its ways. Both are reacting in a way that seeks to exacerbate the spirit of confrontation rather than alleviate the fermenting national crisis. The consumer and the worker always come out worse off.

In the case of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), given claims that over 80% of potential workers are unemployed, how many workers are they expecting to heed the call to stay away? Does this include civil servants? Does this include informal traders who take such occasions as a chance to make money? How many people need to heed the call for it to be deemed a success?

So far the only certainty about the ZCTU stayaway is that it is going to be two days on September 19-20. What happens after the second day given that any government worth the name won’t yield to anything less than massive industrial action? Do they return to the same double-prejudiced employer to ask for a salary adjustment, where they will be told to “go and talk to your government”?

What is the impact of a few workers staying at home on the two days and then returning to work afterwards still empty-handed? If you want to be taken seriously as a labour union, you cannot engage in a war of attrition with government in an economy in which the worker is starving.

Last year ZCTU leaders were rounded up outside Town House where they wanted to march against low wages, lack of access to antiretroviral drugs for its members and high taxes, and were severely assaulted in police custody. There is no doubt that circumstances have deteriorated further since then. What is in doubt is whether the ZCTU leadership has itself changed strategies and tactics to avoid a similar fate this time around.

Then of course there is the issue of the social contract. Is it dead? Is it alive? Who has met his side of the bargain among the three partners? There is no use blaming government for its collapse when labour and business can’t demonstrate that they have been faithful to terms of the protocols. It simply exposes them as equally culpable.

Has there been any attempt to engage government or the responsible commission on the salary freeze before resorting to the economically damaging industrial action? We have seen businesses being allowed to review their prices to a point where a loaf of bread now costs more than $130 000 from about $30 000 two weeks ago. Has the ZCTU tried to present its case within that context before engaging in a fight it is certain to lose?

At times one detects in the responses of labour and business the same lack of resourcefulness and mature leadership that have been the hallmark of Zimbabwe’s political opposition for the past seven years. Their actions are more designed to posture and win public sympathy than to advance a transformative agenda from the status quo.