WHITHER the employee?
That seems to be the major question in 2014 as employees grapple with employers over wage increases on the collective bargaining table.
Workers have been advocating for a minimum wage linked to the Poverty Datum Line (PDL) which currently stands at about US$570, a stance vigorously resisted by employers arguing that it is not feasible due to low productivity. The standoff, it seems, will only get worse.
A July 2013 National Social Security Authority (Nssa) Harare Regional Employer Closures and Registrations Report for the period July 2011 to July 2013 shows 711 companies in Harare closed down, rendering 8 336 individuals jobless.
In addition, many companies are downsizing and have retrenched tens of thousands of their employees, condemning them to a gloomy future.
Major companies that have retrenched include platinum miners Zimplats and Unki, Bindura Nickel, Spar supermarkets, Dairibord, Cairns, Olivine Industries and PG Industries.
The wage stalemate is typified by the 2014 wage negotiations in the mining sector where the employer body, the Chamber of Mines refused to increase the current minimum wage of US$227.
The Associated Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe had demanded a minimum wage of between US$400 and US$500. The Chamber argues that the provision of free accommodation, education, transport and electricity among other perks meant that the workers were already getting the PDL linked minimum wage level.
In some sectors such as agriculture, the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union Zimbabwe (Gapwuz) have taken wage negotiations to arbitration.
However most employers have applied for exemption citing failure to pay, something which is becoming “more of a habit”, according to Gapwuz secretary general Gift Motsi.
“Some groups of employers in some of the sectors have developed a tendency of challenging arbitration awards,” Motsi said, “although there are some who recognise that it does not help to continue fighting on agreed issues.”
Motsi said collective bargaining in 2014 was likely to be a struggle for the agricultural sector.
Deadlocks in wage negotiations are not confined to the private sector as trouble is brewing over wages between civil servants and government.
Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe secretary-general Raymond Majongwe this week told local media that government should come up with a position on civil servants’ salaries before schools opened or face crippling industrial action.
But Labour minister Nicholas Goche has refused to outline what he plans to offer civil servants.
The pressure on government will continue given the pre and post-July 31 election pronouncements by President Robert Mugabe that civil servants should be paid PDL-linked salaries, and unfulfilled promises civil servants would receive a monetary token of appreciation before the end of last year.
Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa said in his 2014 budget statement that government would take a staggered approach to achieve this without mentioning how this would be done.
Labour body Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)’s secretary-general Japhet Moyo paints a gloomy picture of the 2014 collective bargaining exercise.
“It appears that 2014 is going to be a challenging year for workers,” Moyo said. “Clearly collective bargaining, whether be in the private or public sector is going to be very difficult when one talks of wages being linked to productivity. It means workers will not be able to achieve anything on the collective bargaining table.”
Moyo accused employers of exploiting workers under the guise of economic hardships while living lavish lifestyles — buying mansions and posh vehicles while employees suffered.
He cited media reports of chief executives who are earning obscene salaries while most employees wallowed in poverty as evidence of the unsustainable penchant for opulence by employers.
He said while not inciting employees, the only weapon available to them seemed to be collective job action to force employers to the table as options available to them continue to dwindle.
The Employer’s Confederation of Zimbabwe executive director John Mufukare however sees things differently.
“Judging from the collective bargaining summit we held (between employer and worker representatives), we are looking at a smooth 2014,” he said.
“There is a real understanding of the economic reality and that it will not be possible to pay PDL linked wages in the short term. We cannot fight over something that is not there.”
Mufukare said the only solution is to have a competitive economy in Zimbabwe.
Economist John Robertson said employees’ hostility in negotiations has reduced employment prospects as employers become reluctant to take on more workers.
“Employees have to take responsibility to improve what they have to offer the employer,” Robertson said.
He added that there would be less confrontation during wage negotiations in 2014 as workers fight to retain their jobs in an environment of increasing unemployement due to company closures and retrenchments.
Zimbabwe is working towards relaxing labour laws to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers without following time-consuming procedures; a move that has raised suspicion government is trying to entice more Chinese capital into the country.
Chinamasa said the changes were to make the laws “flexible and linking remuneration to productivity, that way promoting interests of both the investor and employees”.
The Labour Relations Act in its current form makes dismissals and retrenchments a slow process as employees have to go through a number of hearings. The hearings start at company level and a dissatisfied party can appeal to labour courts.
Failure to follow laid down procedures in dismissing an employee have in the past cost companies as they have to pay damages in lieu of reinstatement.
With government planning to relax labour laws in favour of the employer and more company closures anticipated, the year 2014 could be an annus horribilis for the hard-pressed worker.