AS government continues to wrangle with Indian firm, Essar Group, over the New Zimbabwe Steel deal, it is the 3 700 steel workers who are bearing the brunt of the endless squabbling which has further damaged the reputation of the country as a serious and safe investment destination.
Report by Faith Zaba
Despite a partnership agreement first signed in August 2011, the renamed Ziscosteel has failed to resume operations.
Government and Indian-based investors agreed on a US$750 million transaction, but the deal has not been consummated due to haggling over iron ore deposits and the shareholding structure of NewZim Minerals, formerly Buchwa Iron Ore Mining Company, a subsidiary of Ziscosteel.
This has left workers reeling from poverty and despair rendering true the KiSwahili saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers.
Ziscosteel closed down in 2008 and since then it has been a tale of broken promises and false hope for the steel workers.
The Ziscosteel fiasco is taking its toll on the workers and their families. Workers have now gone for 35 months without a regular salary since they last received wages consecutively between February and May last year. Essar last paid the May 2012 salaries, which saw the lowest paid getting at least US$400.
Workers are also in trouble because they got bank loans and opened accounts for furniture and clothing not knowing they would be unable to pay.
As a result, some have lost all their household property and cars which were repossessed over unpaid debts.
When Zimbabwe Independent visited Redcliff this past weekend, it witnessed a moving story of human tragedy and misery.
Many children are no longer going to school because their parents cannot afford the fees. Pregnant women are giving birth at home because they cannot pay the US$20 maternity fees. Most families are now surviving on one meal a day and have not had access to tap water for the past five months.
Since Zesa installed pre-paid meters, with a free credit of US$5, the town is now in complete darkness after that credit ran out.
Charles Zihura, a father of two who is waiting for another baby as his wife is expecting, is owed more than US$9 000 in unpaid salary.
“We go to work everyday — we clock in at 7am and clock out at 4pm. We spend the day on an empty stomach. Most of us are having one meal a day — sadza with green leafy vegetables,” he said.
“I can’t even feed my kids and my wife. I can’t pay my bills, I owe US$1 500 in water bills and I also owe the bank over US$400. My first born child is not going to school because I can’t raise the US$65 for fees. Doesn’t the government see we are suffering? We are languishing in poverty, suffering from hunger and other problems.”
Ziscosteel workers committee member Cheneso Jack, a single mother of two, is now praying for divine intervention as the situation increasingly deteriorates.
“I’m in trouble, drowning in debt. I have been reduced from being a businesswoman to a pauper. My Mercedes Benz E230 was repossessed because of a US$150 debt, which had risen to US$800 due to interest charges,” Jack said.
“I had a clothing, electric and kitchware shop on the side, which I had to close because there is no business in Redcliff. I owe US$4 000 in rentals for the shop, US$700 in telephone bills, US$800 water charges and US$750 for the Zesa bill. I had to send my child, who is in Form 1, to a boarding school, because I want to be prestigious or that I can afford it, but because I want to take him away from this misery and poverty.”
To raise the US$420 boarding fees for her son, Jack had to barter clothes with potatoes, which she sold in Kwekwe. Although schools opened on May 7, her child only went to school this week.
“The situation is so bad here that people are snatching away foodstuffs from kids, who would have been sent to the shops. When you buy groceries you have to sneak into the house, otherwise you will have five to 10 people outside your door begging for food,” she said.
The workers have written to President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mpofu and Ncube appealing for help.
They want government to send an audit team to investigate Ziscosteel managers, whom they allege are still getting full benefits, which include between 400 and 600 litres of fuel per month. Workers say the situation is confusing as it appears Zisco was still operational as truckloads of tonnes of ingots, blooms, scrap metal, coke fines and limestone dust are always running up and down.
“But they don’t even assist people when they are bereaved, sick or arrested for not paying maintenance. Pregnant women are suffering, giving birth at home and people are dying from curable ailments because they can’t afford medication.”
Ward 4 councillor, Martin Shoko, said companies and residents owe the Redcliff Town Council US$11,8 million, of which US$5 million is owed by residents. He said Ziscosteel owes them more than US$2,5 million.
As a result, council is unable to provide services — so residents have to do without reliable water and electricity supplies, among other problems like lack of health care, transport, garbage collection and dilapidated roads. Such is life in Redcliff.