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Eric Bloch Column

Labour becoming own worst enemy

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By Eric Bloch

LIFE for most of Zimbabwe’s workers has become increasingly tough. Year after year it has become more and more difficult for the majority of Zimbabwe’s workforce to maintain a standard of living for their families and themselves, let alone to achieve any improvement to that standard, as most desperately aspire to achieve.

Their environment has been extremely harsh for, by now, almost every second of their waking lives is centred upon monetary concerns. They have to worry how to meet basic costs such as rentals, electricity and water charges, purchase of foodstuffs, children’s education fees and allied expenses such as uniforms and text books, health care expenses and transport to and from work.

Although very few, if any, ever lived in what could be described as luxury, most found that periodic increments in wages sufficed to continue living in a consistent lifestyle, and at one time they could anticipate some improvement in their circumstances, and very often that anticipation would be realised.But times have changed. In recent years, most wages have increased to an extent aligned with official rates of inflation, whilst the actual inflation impacting upon workers has been greater than such official rates.

This has been because, as a general rule in Zimbabwe in the past years, the extent of inflation on basic expenditure such as accommodation costs (including utilities), foodstuffs, education, medical costs and transport has been markedly greater than on other items such as entertainment and leisure, furniture and household goods, clothing, textiles and footwear. As the average worker has had to spend the bulk of income on basics and the progressively decreasing portion of income on those goods and services not as severely impacted upon by inflation, he has suffered erosion of his purchasing power to a greater extent than official inflation and, therefore, wage increments equating to official inflation, have not sufficed to restore the workers’ purchasing power.

A further significant factor has been that as the pace of the economy has slowed down, fewer and fewer enterprises have had a need to operate overtime in order to meet marked demands. As a result, workers have supplemented basic income to a considerably lesser degree by way of overtime earnings than was previously the case. Similarly, the ability to earn performance-related productivity bonuses has declined, for employers, having experienced sharp reductions in required production volumes, have necessarily scaled down operations.

Yet another major factor has been the exponential growth in the members being supported by income earners. The most admirable aspect of Zimbabwean culture is the extended family system, wherein those with income will render support to relatives, no matter how distant, as are without income. Not only are spouses, children, parents and parents-in-law supported, but so to are siblings of the worker, and similarly supported are the workers’ and his spouses’ cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, grandparents and even other remote relatives in need.

It has been estimated that the average number of dependants relying on a worker has risen from eight in 1991 to 18 in 2003, as a result of increased unemployment, the impact of HIV/Aids and malnutrition and an overall decline in health.The pressures upon incomes have resulted in ever greater prioritisation of expenditure, with more and more categories of expenditure being excluded, notwithstanding that many of them were previously have been perceived to be of an essential nature.

Probably the first expense categories to be eliminated were those related to leisure and entertainment, furniture, clothing and footwear. But more recently many workers have had to stop funding transport costs. Instead they depart their homes before sunrise and walk to their place of employment for several hours, and after an exhausting day, have to walk home again at sunset. They are negatively affected physically, but are also deprived of quality time with their families.Recently, these circumstances have worsened further, with many workers no longer able to pay their family’s health care costs. Instead they have to hope for restoration of health being achieved without recourse to medical services or medications.It is little wonder, therefore, that all workers crave major pay increases and unhesitatingly demand them.

On the one hand the desperation of their needs drives them to pursue increments greatly higher than the official inflation rates. On the other hand, the average worker is imbued with a perception that employers are possessed of untold wealth. The worker walks to work, the employer arrives in his executive model motor vehicle. The worker lives in overcrowded conditions in high-density areas, the employers reside in large houses situate in low-density areas, and so forth. The worker has become oblivious to the fact that in all too many instances the employer’s business is sustaining immense losses, having suffered considerable decreases in both domestic and export market demand, sharply increased operational costs and cripplingly high amounts of financing charges. The trappings of wealth are usually carry-overs from better days in the past and not the result of continuing high incomes, and the businesses are burdened with cataclysmic debts.

With desperation driving worker demands, and the perceptions that employers are endowed with massive riches, the stance of trade unions, workers’ committees, and others represent workers in collective bargaining negotiations, no longer base their demands in negotiations upon inflation rates, but at markedly higher levels. Whilst the compounded month-on-month inflation for the first half of 2004 was marginally over 60%, opening demands at wage negotiations have usually ranged from 500% to 1 000%.

Even in instances where the negotiations are engaged in only once per annum, instead of quarterly or half-yearly, the collective bargaining dialogues are commencing with worker requirements being wage increases of between 600% and 1 000%, despite the annualised rate of inflation (based upon the consumer price index) being 394,6% for the year ended June.

These excessive demands which now characterise collective bargaining, are creating a fast growing divide between employers and labour, and the negotiations are often becoming highly confrontational. Moreover, the inevitable deadlocks are considerably extending the negotiations, causing much distress and concern to workers and employers alike. In a notably increasing extent, the parties are having to declare disputes, which then are referred to arbitration or litigation, with concomitant further delays and great costs for the disputants. A major side effect is that employers look more and more to downsizing their operations by discontinuing the employment of contract labour, and by recourse to natural attrition and non-resort to filling vacancies as may arise.

Many enterprises have been forced into closure, being unable to operate viably in the light of rising costs in general, and labour costs in particular, and at the same time being faced by shrinking market demands. Other enterprises have had to cut back severely on provision to employees of benefits from employment as fall outside the parameters of collective bargaining agreements.

Thus although the hardships of the workers are very real and very evident, they need to temper their demands upon employers to rational levels related to enterprise viability. Failure to do so worsens the lot of the worker by his setting the employer enterprise along the path to closure and therefore himself upon the path to unemployment. In such event the worker becomes his own worst enemy.

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