Zim Workers Go Through Hell

JOHN Nhamo, a clerk at a Harare government office, is the breadwinner of a family of six having lost both his parents to the HIV and Aids scourge in the late 1990s.

Traditionally the civil service is the lowest paying sector in the country and Nhamo says his $3,5 billion monthly salary is only enough to pay for his rent and part of service charges.

“God knows where I get the rest of the money for food, transport, school fees, clothes and other basics,” he lamented.

“To raise additional cash, I sometimes sell muffins made by my wife to fellow employees and at times I take off days and go to Botswana to perform menial jobs, like tilling other people’s gardens or washing their dirty clothes. Life is tough for us ordinary people.”

Nhamo’s plight is not confined to civil service employees but is a permanent feature for most, if not all, Zimbabwean workers.

It is indeed a rough life for workers who for the past eight years have endured the ills of an economic meltdown as a result of poor government policies.

And as employees celebrated Workers Day yesterday, the question at the back of their minds was whether it was still worth it to continue going to work when they can barely manage to look after their families. 

Apart from poor wages and salaries, Zimbabwean workers are some of the most heavily taxed in the world and those infected with HIV have no easy access to the life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs.

 

Last month, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) reduced the highest tax band from 60% to 47,5%, but the country’s biggest labour organisation — the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) — dismissed the move.

“Workers will not be hoodwinked by Zimra that the highest tax band has been reduced to 47,5% from the previously announced 60%,” the 300 000-member body said.

“47,5% is what workers have been fighting against all along.”

The ZCTU said workers were tired of negotiating for higher wages only for whatever gains made to be chewed up by income tax.

“Zimbabwe workers are the highest taxed in the world yet the taxes do not benefit them, instead we remain poor and hungry… Companies are into business for profit, while workers work to earn a living,” the labour union said. “Workers are being denied their right to life by being taxed to death.”

The ZCTU is demanding that all workers earning below the poverty datum line should not be taxed, while the highest tax should be pegged at 30%. 

An average worker earns less than $3 billion monthly, about US$30 on the parallel market.

A few days before the March 29 harmonised elections, embattled President Robert Mugabe increased the salaries of teachers and other civil servants, triggering a massive hike in prices of basic commodities.

The prices saw the majority of workers, both in the public and private sector, sinking more into a hopeless abyss of poverty and deprivation.

Some workers have resorted to changing jobs in search of greener pastures.

Tendai Chasakara is one such employee.

She is currently a health officer with a non-governmental organisation, having dumped the civil service where she was employed as a nurse at the country’s largest referral hospital, Parirenyatwa, for more than 20 years.

Chasakara said she quit her nursing job due to a poor salary and working conditions.

In the 1980s, she said, nursing was a noble profession and with her salary she could afford to buy furniture, basic goods and luxuries.

She was also able to send her three children to boarding schools and assist her husband in paying a mortgage for their house in Waterfalls, Harare.

However, for Chasakara things took a bad turn in 2000 soon after the ill-fated farm invasions which heralded the country’s unprecedented economic decline.

Nurses, along with other civil servants, found themselves being the least paid workers in Zimbabwe.

“There was a time when I could hardly afford to go to work as my salary was way below what I had to spend on transport alone,” Chasakara said. “I was left with no option but to quit.” 

The organisation she now works for was last month forced to suspend its operations in rural areas due to rampant political violence in their target area in Manicaland.

Incidents of violence have been recorded around the country after the March 29 elections, which saw Zanu PF losing control of the House of Assembly to the opposition MDC.

Chasakara and other workers employed by NGOs face a bleak future.

They have spent the past weeks gossiping and updating each other on the political situation in the country with no work to do.

”My contract expired last week, but my employer cannot renew it now because of the political situation that has resulted in us halting operations,” she said.

Mugabe’s government admits workers are facing difficulties, but lays the blame on alleged sanctions imposed on the country by Western powers opposed to the controversial seizure of land from white farmers for redistribution to the majority landless blacks.

As part of this year’s Workers Day commemorations the ZCTU and other civil organisations adopted a people’s charter aimed at improving the lives of workers.

The charter, among other things, advocates for decent work, employment and the right to earn a living for all.

The charter reads: “Fair labour standards which include a tax-free minimum wage linked to the inflation and the poverty datum line and pay equity for women, youth and casual workers.

“Safe working places and adequate state and employer-funded compensation for injury or death from accidents at work.” 

According to the ZCTU, about 2% of workers still in formal employment earn above the breadline salary of $5 billion, while multitudes of employees have been made redundant following company closures over the past years and have to eke out a living as petty traders in the informal sector.

While government and labour unions do not agree on the level of unemployment in Zimbabwe, independent consultants claim that the rate of unemployment is now above 80%.

The biggest problem for workers, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, is the skyrocketing of food prices.

A snap survey on basic commodities carried out by the Zimbabwe Independent this week, revealed that a 10kg bag of the staple maize meal now costs $300 million, while the price of a two-litre bottle of cooking oil is $700 million.

A bar of washing soap is now $180 million and all these basic commodities were only available on the black market.

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