The crisis had resulted in world record hyperinflation that resulted in daily skyrocketing of prices, shortages of basic commodities, massive job retrenchments and company closures.
Political protagonists –– President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputy Arthur Mutambara –– were whipped by Sadc into forming a coalition government in February 2009 to arrest the rot.
Soon after its formation and the dollarisation of the economy, confidence returned into the country. Shop shelves were fully stocked with imported products and local industry started ticking, though at a helter-skelter pace.
But over a year down the line, workers are losing hope of a brighter future as they mark tomorrow’s Workers Day.
Shop shelves are still fully stocked but most employees, both in the formal and informal sectors, cannot afford them. The majority of them earn an average US$150 monthly against a background of price increases of basic commodities and utilities.
This comes at a time when the United Nations says the unemployment rate in the country is about 90%.
As if this is not enough, threats for retrenchments are galore and there are also restrictions on union activism.
Finance minister Tendai Biti and Industry and International Trade minister Welshman Ncube have compounded the situation when they made pronouncements that the current Labour Act would be changed to reflect the prevailing economic environment.
The proposed changes are meant to put a leash on arbitrators so that they award severance packages and salary increments which reflect the economic performance of given companies.
A fortnight ago, Biti when reviewing the country’s economic outlook said the reforms would constrain the labour market which together with other factors was responsible for building inflation pressures.
“Reflective of the high risk arising from unmet wage demands or poor wage offers are the large number of arbitration cases pertaining to both the public and the private sectors,” said Biti. “This risk is arising from the apparent inflexibility of the labour market. Hence, government will expedite the review of both labour laws and the related institutional arrangements, with a view to bringing flexibility to the labour market and ensuring that wage and salary payments are within the capacity of the economy.”
Biti has frozen salary increments for civil servants. The move is expected to be replicated in the private sector, further worsening the plight of employees.
Former MDC MP and University of Zimbabwe law lecturer Munyaradzi Gwisai, who was involved in the amendment of the Labour Relations Act, said the recent pronouncements by the two ministers were “scandalous and regrettable”.
Gwisai said he did not expect to hear this coming from Biti who is the secretary-general of a party (MDC-T) that “claims to be social democrat” and labour-backed.
He described Biti’s pronouncement as the “ranting of a victor” because workers from the private sector had not joined hands with civil servants who went on strike demanding a realistic salary earlier this year.
“Under the current Labour Relations Act, the worker’s right to strike is minimal and collective bargaining has failed, as you can see now most workers earn less than US$200 yet the poverty datum line is at around US$500,” said Gwisai. “The strike laws are draconian (favouring the employer) and the current labour law does not provide for minimum remuneration.”
Gwisai differs with the two ministers as to the directions the labour reforms should take.
While Biti and Ncube want to give more power to the employer, Gwisai argued that it is the worker who should benefit from any reforms so that there is a “genuine right to strike in line with regional and international labour standards”.
“There is need for real justice in so far as workers’ entitlements are concerned,” added Gwisai. “An employee who wins a labour case at the moment is paid in Zimbabwean dollars.”
There are companies which have mocked employees by giving them severance packages in Zimbabwe dollars which are no longer in use.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Wellington Chibhebhe concurs that there should be reforms to the Labour Act and the recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on Zimbabwe should be used as a benchmark.
“The ILO report has made it very clear that our labour law should be in line with international standards,” said Chibhebhe. “We have made the report available to cabinet and they have responded that they accept the recommendations and we wonder where the ministers are getting what they are saying.”
ILO recommendations include giving more power to the worker.
Zimbabwe’s labour regulations are porous when looked at from the worker’s side as they do not give minimum remuneration or social security as is the case in other countries.
Chibhebhe said there was nothing for the worker at the moment.
“The poverty datum line is calculated on the basis of basic commodities and it is not determined by the ZCTU,” said Chibhebhe. “The failure to meet workers’ wage demands cannot be blamed on the workers but the non-performance of industry which is operating at 30%.”
Apart from changes to the Labour Relations Act, workers are eager to know the impact of the Indigenisation and Empowerment Act.
Gwisai pointed out that workers had to insist that any indigenisation drive should see them getting a share of the national cake.
“They should make sure that the elite do not steal their labour,” added Gwisai. “In fact the ZCTU should come up openly on the issue of indigenisation as well as on constitutional matters. ZCTU should not continue to fence-sit on these two issues and if they are not content with the constitutional process, they have to come with a parallel programme.”
Most workers are in a fix as they cannot pull through a month on their salaries yet they may not think of any job action as it would boomerang on them.
Workers shudder to think what the situation would be a year from now.
Maybe by then they would have joined the unemployed or the new regulations restricting the labour market may have been passed.
Either way, for most workers, the legal, economic and political environment muddies hope for a better tomorrow.