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Eric Bloch Column

Rights and wrongs of Operation Tatambura
By Eric Bloch

THE Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions  (ZCTU) on Wednesday pursued protests to government and employers, its national protest campaign being titled “Operation Tatambura Usaderere Mushandi

” or “Operation Sesihluppekile Isisebenzi.” Very understandably, and most commendably, ZCTU is concerned about the wellbeing of Zimbabwe’s workers, and of their families.  Equally creditworthy is its concern at the magnitude of discomforts and suffering of many, if not — in fact — most, of the families and other dependants of those workers.

It is undeniable that immense poverty and consequential hardships prevail in Zimbabwe. Although authoritative current data is not available thereon, it is estimated that in excess of 80% of the population struggle to subsist on incomes below the Poverty Datum Line (PDL).

Even worse, estimates place the numbers that are faced with under-nourishment and malnutrition, and consequential endangerment of life, at almost 60%, incomes being less that the food datum line (FDL), being the minimum income required to fund food essentials. Vast numbers of Zimbabweans are homeless, others live in near untenable conditions of gross overcrowding, many cannot afford access to health services or cannot purchase essential medications, and cannot pay the school fees and attendant costs for their children. Hardships, wretchedness, misery, starvation and pronounced despondency and dejection are the tragic lot of ever-greater numbers of Zimbabweans, including very many workers and their families.

In such circumstances, the ZCTU is right to be concerned as to the welfare of its members, and to seek to reverse the prevailing circumstances, and bring about improved lives for its members. Unfortunately, however, it has misguided and misdirected itself, to a very great degree, as to the causes of the unacceptable conditions existing in Zimbabwe. Moreover, if certain of the ZCTU demands were to be fulfilled, those conditions would inevitably deteriorate very markedly, compounding the distress of the populace, instead of reducing and progressively eliminating it.

In its recent press advertisements, the ZCTU demonstrates irrefutably that it attributes the dismal and repellent circumstances wholly to government and employers. Its by-line for its protests is “Breaking the Chains of Oppression and Exploitation”, and states the intent of the protests is “to show government and employers that the workers have gone this far with their suffering and cannot go any further.”  ZCTU contends that “Now is the time to SAY NO!”

Few can credibly deny that the appalling economic conditions that have characterised Zimbabwe for all too long are primarily due to government. It has been the manner of government’s pursuit of land reform, and its gross mismanagement  of agriculture, that has destroyed the foundation of principles of democracy, justice, human rights, preservation of law and order, and for good and sound market-force- driven economic principles, that has alienated most of the international investor community, the world’s monetary bodies, and an overwhelming majority of the countries in the world as would otherwise be sources of developmental support,    economic  assistance and trade.

These acts of commission and omission on the part of government have halted all economic growth and caused a more than 40% contraction of the economy since the Millennium, with concomitant closures of business and losses of employment, rampant inflation unmatched by per capita income growth, and virtually all Zimbabwe’s other economic ills.

It can also not be denied that there has been some very significant oppression in Zimbabwe, and that that continues, to some extent, at the present time.

Prime examples include the unauthorised  invasions of farms by war veterans  and others, involving violence, abuse, vandalisation, victimisation and theft, the sufferers being not only  the former farmers and their families, but also the farm workers, their families and dependants. Another prime example was the dismal and abysmal, near genocidal, Operation Murambatsvina, wherein  the supposed guardians of law and order, aided and abetted by the arms of government, pursued  fundamentally  justifiable  objectives in the most abusive, inhumane ways possible, causing irreversible suffering for hundreds of thousands of innocents.

More recently, there are numerous reports of excessive authoritarianism and corruption at many of the road blocks and other security checks associated with the introduction of new currency, and phasing out of the old.

If ZCTU’s protests were directed at change to government’s policies and its actions that are destructive to the economy, those protests would be well-justified (if pursued vigorously and peacefully, and without causing further economic collapse).

But that is only very partially so. The ZCTU states assertively that it demands that:

* Minimum wages and salaries be linked to the PDL;

* The maximum rate of Income Tax be 30%, with workers earning below the PDL not being taxed;

* Full availability and Free Access to Anti-Retrovirals;

* Stabilisation  of prices of basic commodities and;

* A stop  to harassment of informal economy workers by local authority police and the police.

It is obviously desirable that there be a direct linkage between the minimum wage and the PDL. However, if it is   beyond the means of the employer to pay minimum wages at the level sought by the ZCTU, then an obligation to do so can only   bring  about  the liquidation of the employer’s business, with consequential  unemployment  for all its workers,   who would therefore be even worse off than if  employed, albeit at an inadequate wage.  

The ZCTU recurrently disregards this critical consideration (and hence the breakdown at the Tripartite Negotiating Forum  (TNF), when private enterprise was prepared to accept PDL wage linkage, subject to the qualification of ability to pay, rejected by ZCTU).

Moreover, any negotiated linkage must recognise that PDL is cited in respect of a family of six, and in such a family there are generally two or more income earners, albeit the non-principal income earners. ZCTU must, in its members’ best interest, rationalise it’s demands so as not to occasion more unemployment and further economic decline.

The demand that workers earning less than the PDL should not be subject to income taxes, on the face of it is reasonable, for such taxation only intensifies hardships. However, again, regard must be had to family units having more that one income earner, and the demand should pertain to all in the population, and not only to workers.

However, it is difficult to justify an income tax rate of 30% at a time when, even if government exercised maximum fiscal probity (which it does not!), the state does not have sufficient revenues to meet the sociological needs of a distressed populace, critical necessary infrastructural development, and legitimate costs of government. Instead, tax bands should be realistically adjusted upwards so as to ensure that the rates of tax applicable for persons with income levels that cannot be considered affluent and opulent are not excessively burdensome. There is, however, no reason why the very well-endowed should, not, as the world-over, contribute to the needs of society.

Stabilisation of prices is clearly desirable, but this most not be procured by price controls, for they can only undermine the economy further, with all consequential ills, including further unemployment, increased scarcities, and a more virile black market. Price stabilisation must be achieved through increased productivity, greater competition, and economic deregulation. Key factors to achieve productivity include governmentally — facilitated increased foreign exchange inflows, enabling increased, reliable availability of manufacturing and agricultural inputs, at more stable exchange rates, and requires that government takes all the actions (long overdue) to contain inflation.

The need for a sufficient, continuous availability of AVRs cannot be justly refuted, but free distribution thereof should be to those unable to afford them, whilst other should not expect society to bear the costs. The ZCTU are also right in demanding a cessation of informal sector harassment, provided that it does not expect the informal sector to have a blatant disregard for law and order, or to be allowed to engage in activities against the best interests of society, and especially so insofar as health, security and morals is concerned. If appropriately modified, peacefully and lawfully pursued, and without being economically destructive, there is much that will be right with Operation Tatambura. If, not, the wrongs outweigh the rights, cannot be justified, and must not be supported.

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