ZIMBABWE recently joined the rest of the world in commemorating Workers’ Day on May 1. The day came at a time the country faces a deepening economic crisis characterised by a severe liquidity crunch, company closures and resultant job losses. Businessdigest reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) caught up with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Japhet Moyo (JM) to discuss various issues that include challenges facing workers, the ZCTU’s political affiliation and the relevance of trade unionism in Zimbabwe given the country’s economic decline. Below are excerpts:
KK: Having commemorated Workers’ Day recently, is the day still relevant in Zimbabwe in light of the deepening economic crisis that has nearly wiped out the entire formal sector?
JM: Maybe the first thing is to understand the origins of Workers’ Day so that we can appreciate why workers all over the world commemorate this day. The day is remembered for the sacrifices made by the workers who were killed while demanding improvement in their conditions of employment.
Workers all over the world now remember this day with those memories. Battles were fought and lives were lost for workers’ rights to enjoy regulated and safe working conditions.
While conditions of employment have improved since that sad unfortunate day when four workers were fired at and killed while demanding an eight-hour day, especially in more developed countries, Zimbabwean workers find themselves in an almost similar situation, with 94% of the labour force in the informal economy. This high percentage of informality has caused havoc to the conditions of employment for the remaining workers in the formal sector.
Therefore, the environment created has made commemorating this day more relevant as workers are back in those same days when they would work long hours with very little remuneration in return. The more the economic crisis deepens, the more relevant the day becomes.
KK: Last year at least 260 companies closed shop with nearly 9 000 workers retrenched over the last two years. Has this trend continued in the first five months of the year?
JM: The number of companies closing or retrenching has appeared to be stabilising not because the economy has improved, but the companies still in formal business have drastically gone down over the years. Owing to their informal nature, most companies now do not need to go through these formalities when laying off workers or closing shop.
Our labour market information services mostly do not pick up backyard and open space economic activities. When they downsize or close down, no one picks that information, especially if there is no dispute, as most employ relatives. Apart from that, the majority of workers are on fixed-time contracts which are crafted in a way that makes it impossible to tell whether the person is a worker or a volunteer.
KK: Some quarters have argued that the ZCTU has become more of a political animal rather than a representative of workers. Would you say this is an accurate reflection of ZCTU?
JM: ZCTU represents interests of a class and those interests vary from socio, economic and political, simple because these interests are intertwined and inseparable. We represent this group of people during working hours and after working hours. Their interests vary during this circle, first as a worker, a community person who votes, school leaver, housewife and old citizen.
Therefore, we speak on their behalf on all the issues which affect them, could it be wrong political decisions that wipe out what they negotiate with their employers, erosion of their savings due to bad monetary policy or cash shortages because some politicians stole their deposits. It is our responsibility to teach civic education to our members so that they make their right choice when it comes to choosing councillors, members of parliament and office bearers within their organisations and respective political parties.
We remain independent from any political party or influence, but very alive to political decisions affecting our members and society. We reserve the right to speak on climate change, political violence, child labour, inequality, poverty, corruption, embezzlement of public funds, electoral reforms because all these issues affect the people we represent. And we speak these issues from an independent and autonomous position.
It is only the politicians and uninformed quarters who believe they have the monopoly over the citizens.
KK: Is the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) working in relation to workers’ interests?
JM: We have been participating in this platform for the past 20 years and drafted a number of protocols which have remained mere documents. One good example is the Kadoma Declaration which might be gathering dust and now we have the labour law reform process. It is not the number of meetings that matter, but intended objectives. Those objectives have eluded us. For the past two decades, the platform remains unlegislated and South Africa, which came to learn from us, has a very efficient and effective chamber which has contributed to their economic growth.
To the majority of workers, this TNF is used as a ploy to tie them to the negotiating table while politicians play hide and seek.
KK: Your president, Peter Mutasa, has indicated that the ZCTU is unhappy over a number of investments made by the National Social Security Authority (Nssa). Would you elaborate on this?
JM: It is in the public domain that Nssa has made questionable investment decisions over the years and workers’ pensions have been misappropriated by the previous management. It is our hope that the current board and management would be more transparent, clean up the mess left by the previous authority and have less political interference in the running of Nssa.
We wait to see what would be the returns regarding the investments we have questioned so far.
KK: What should government do to turnaround the economy in your view as labour?
JM: The role of government is to create an enabling environment through regulation and policy direction for economic activities to flourish. But the current environment is over-regulated with red tape within government institutions. It is more difficult to run a formal business in Zimbabwe without patronage of the people in high office. It is a nightmare to register a formal business and that scares potential investors.
The indigenisation policy is not a new phenomenon as it is found in many countries, but our model is the only one in the world because it can be interpreted in different ways. That has created a risk factor for capital. Investors want an environment where they can be protected by law and we have a history of lawlessness, where court orders are not enforced timely.
KK: You have been unhappy with what you call government’s unilateral appointment of a drafter of the proposed amendments to the Labour Act and have come up with your own draft. How is yours different from the government-sponsored draft?
JM: The International Labour Organisation High-Level Mission report has already highlighted that “the process was as important as the substance, given that such misunderstandings heightened a lack of trust in the TNF process”. But we had issues besides the process and those issues have been put into a draft which is subject to engagement with other social partners. Among those issues is the narrow interpretation of the act which excludes the constitution, linking wages to production when determining wage level during collective bargaining when you have other factors like obsolete equipment, erratic energy supply and other variables, apportioning maternity responsibility to government against the dictates of the constitution, reintroducing Employment Boards when we had already agreed at TNF how the National Employment Councils are going to be structured, just to mention a few.
All our issues are now under consideration and will be part of the working document.
KK: A survey showed that millions of dollars are being lost by employers in paying for unproductive hours spent in cash queues. What are the challenges being faced by your membership as a result of the cash shortages?
JM: We still have a cash economy and much of our needs had to be paid in cash. Almost the entire countryside where most of our members still relate to needs cash, and they have now resorted to barter trade to survive. It is our membership who spends much of their productive time in bank queues with all the inconveniences assorted with this humiliation.
KK: Government has said it will soon introduce a national health scheme. What is your view on this?
JM: ZCTU has already taken a position at the TNF that the concept might be noble, but is based on feasibility work done by a British consultant 20 years ago when our economy was not in this shape.
With 94% of the labour force in the informal economy, how do we sustain such a scheme?
A study done by the Labour Economic Development Institute of Zimbabwe already shows that the remaining workers in the formal sector are going for months without salaries as employers grapple with huge unpaid salaries. Therefore, workers are not in a position to add another deduction to their dwindling incomes.
Besides the economic issue, workers are worried and concerned that the administration is again entrusted in an organisation which has lately proved to be inefficient, bureaucratic and has struggled to administer only two schemes.
Already the Finance ministry has again initiated that the collection of subscriptions would be done by Zimra who will charge a collection fee. This means both schemes under Nssa would first fund Treasury and workers think that is going into a bottomless pit.
KK: Some have said trade unionism in Zimbabwe has become increasingly irrelevant due to the decimation of formal employment in Zimbabwe. Is there still a future for trade unionism in Zimbabwe?
JM: Already, unions have been organising outside their traditional scope and they have forged alliances with informal economy organisations. Most of the trade union constitutions have been amended to allow informal units, organisations and cooperation to remain within their scope of coverage.
We need to understand that every worker regardless of the status of the employer is covered by the Labour Act. Therefore, workers do not need to be in a formal employment to belong to a trade union. Our assessment is that trade unionism in Zimbabwe is going through a phase of introspection and they have already shown their ability to adapt to different situations.
Trade unionism came to existence under very oppressive environments all over the world and they diversified when they gave birth to social movements and in Africa they gave birth to liberation movements and that is why they are under attack from both capital and nationalists. These groups know the potential and influence of trade unionism within societies.
KK: What have been the achievements of the ZCTU?
JM: We are the oldest federation in Zimbabwe and our footprints are there for everyone to see. We have established ourselves as a resource centre and produced some ground-breaking economic blueprints over the past three decades: (including) Beyond Esap, Alternative to Neoliberalism in Southern Africa and Beyond the Enclave, just to mention a few. And we have just released another compilation, The Developmental State.
We participated in the democratisation of our nation when we rejected the one-party state and took a leading role in introducing multiparty democracy and still remained independent, but very influential.
We have produced within our ranks members of Parliament, ministers, prime minister, councillors and capacitated our members to become researchers and excel in different disciplines.
We continue to be opinion leaders within the society in and around the region.