Erich Bloch: Labour Bent On Suicide

LIFE for most workers in Zimbabwe has become an unadulterated hell.

No matter what their wages may be, and no matter how frugal they may be, they just cannot make ends meet.
  

Their entire day is invariably a grim and ghastly hell. So cataclysmically great is hyperinflation, with prices no longer rising monthly or weekly, but daily or hourly, that with very rare exception they cannot provide for the essential needs of their families or themselves.
  

And this circumstance is greatly exacerbated  by their having to fend for an ever greater  number of dependants, for Zimbabweans have the remarkably  admirable culture of the extended family system, whereby there is a deep-seated sense of obligation  to provide support for any relatives, no matter how distant, as are in need. And the numbers of such impoverished relations grow continuously, partially as a consequence of the ravages of HIV/Aids, partially because so many  who were family providers  have died from malnutrition or from failing health not reversed, due to the lack of resources to seek medical attention, and partially because of ever-increasing unemployment.
For an average worker, the day begins with rising well before down, in order to walk distances of five to 15 kilometres to place of employment, as public transport has become unaffordable for most. The worker departs home without having had breakfast for, if there is any food in the home, that is kept for the children. Very often (at least three times weekly, the worker first goes to his bank where, together with many hundreds of others, he queues for hours in a desperate attempt to withdraw a minuscule portion of his wages due to the appalling constraint of cash withdrawal limits (until last week a niggardly  $50 000, and now an almost as niggardly $500 000). Those hours of queuing discomfort, and unauthorised absenteeism from work, are necessitated by employers being precluded from paying wages in cash, for they are restrained to daily cash withdrawal limits of a pitiful  $1 million.
Eventually the worker arrives at his place of employment, often to be berated for his immensely late arrival, and threatened with consequential wage deductions. For the remainder of the day, inevitably his thoughts and focus are not on his prescribed tasks, but are intense worries about how to meet his family’s immediate needs, be they food, healthcare, education, payment of rent and utilities, essential clothing, and so forth.
He is also suffering pangs of hunger, and subconsciously is dreading the long walk home at the end of the day. Moreover, he knows that when he does get home, he is likely to be faced by an anguished family, and a distraught wife. The children are crying because they have been sent home from school for non-payment of fees, or for lack of prescribed textbooks and stationery, or because they are hungry. The wife is beside herself with distress because of the state of her children, because the home has been without power or water for much of the day, or because the landlord is threatening eviction due to non-payment of rent.  
Unintentionally, but reactive to stress, she is going to berate her husband, and he has been aware of that  probability throughout his day of extended walking, bank queueing and at work. All of this impacts very negatively upon his productivity and upon the quality of his work, resulting in pronouncedly voiced employer dissatisfaction, adding yet further to the worker’s despondency and distress.
The only relief for some, but not all, and rarely of a sufficient extent, is the aid and support forthcoming from worker relatives who departed Zimbabwe to take up employment in neighbouring territories, or further afield. But, whilst this accords some relief for some, it is usually only a minimisation, and not elimination, of the innumerable trials and tribulations afflicting the worker and his family. In addition, the worker who is recipient of such support has an ongoing, inherent fear, that it may suddenly cease, for more and more countries are striving to contain the flood of Zimbabweans pouring across their  borders, are not renewing work permits, and are deporting many back to Zimbabwe,  whereupon the much-needed largesse given by them to their families in Zimbabwe  will peremptorily cease.
The workers’ lot is not a happy one, and as a result the workers are, through their unions, constantly demanding wage reviews of  the employers. That they do so is understandable, and to the extent  that employer  incomes can keep pace with,  or exceed, inflation, it is only just and fair  that there be very regular and appropriate  upward wage reviews. But, driven by the desperation that confronts the workers, almost without exception there are continuous  demands for increments  which, prima facie,  would be just and fair in the abysmal prevailing  economic environment, but in reality  are  grossly untoward in relation  to the ability of employers to fund those wages, and to preserve business viability.
In the last few weeks some of the labour unions have gone even more overboard, demanding that wages be paid in foreign currency. Not only is such demand unlawful, in terms of prevailing exchange controls, but it is blatantly beyond the ability  of almost all employers to comply, for they do not have, and cannot lawfully access,  such foreign currency. A very large number  of businesses do not engage in exports,  and therefore do not earn foreign  currency. Others, who do export, are mandatorily bound to sell 25% of their foreign currency receipts into the interbank market, at spuriously low rates wholly non-aligned to inflation. The remainder of the foreign currency is invariably required to fund imports of operational inputs, export marketing expenses such as sales agents’ commissions, and so forth, and to enable occasional refurbishment, rehabilitation, upgrading or replacement of plant, machinery and equipment. Thus, even if wage payments in foreign currency were lawful, from whence are the employers to source the foreign currency?
Hence, whilst one must have every sympathy for the oppressed plight of the grievously beleaguered workers, they must recognise that not only can that which the employer does not have not be paid, but that to demand it endlessly, and to resort all too frequently to threats of labour stoppages in the absence of surrender to the demands, can only result in the collapse of the employer businesses, and consequential unemployment for the workers. Whilst an inadequacy of income is distressful in the extreme, zero income is even worse. In addition, the worker needs to strive for increased productivity, for the greater the productivity, the greater the wages that employers can then afford to pay.  Over and above that key factor, enhanced productivity would be a major contributant to containing the never-ending upward surge of the backbreaking inflation that is destroying the economy, the Zimbabwe people, and Zimbabwe.
The current devastating levels of inflation, greater than ever sustained by any country, at any time in recorded history, also irrefutably demonstrates the critical need for the immediate implementation of the long proposed, but never materialised, Social Contract. If all prices, all governmental charges, and all salaries and wages  were frozen  for a  transitional period of time, that inflation would be halted, and a foundation created upon which  to rebuild  the economy,  and improve  the lot of employers, workers, and all others. The time for talking about a Social Contract must end and instead constructive implementation be achieved forthwith. In the meanwhile, labour must be realistic, and not be bent upon suicide!