Employers obliged to pay salaries during lockdown

THE extension of the country’s lockdown by two weeks has worsened the plight of worker as employers struggle to keep their companies afloat. The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) recently revealed that 82% of companies will not be able to pay salaries beyond one month, and some companies have already laid off workers, while others have sent them on forced leave. Senior reporter Bridget Mananavire (BM) this week engaged Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa (PM, pictured) on these and other issues to unpack and understand the employment crisis caused by the lockdown implemented to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Below are excerpts of the interview:

BM: What is your assessment of the current lockdown and how it has affected workers?

PM: Covid-19 has had catastrophic impact on almost all facets of live. The UN stated that this is a health crisis unlike any in 75 years of UN existence.
For Zimbabwe it came at a time we were already facing a serious humanitarian crisis due to various factors. The lockdown therefore brought additional trouble to a troubled nation.

Firstly, we believe the lockdown was essential for us to understand the epidemic and to prepare whilst still facing few cases. It also helped to slow down infections especially imported cases due to closure of borders.

But, l think we missed an opportunity, by failing to have mass testing, isolation and effective management of the cases. ln this regard, the lockdown opportunity was not fully utilised.

The lockdown while beneficial on health considerations had its negative socio-economic problems. For workers in the formal sector many are earning below the poverty datum line, which is fictitiously put at ZW$5 293 for February 2020. Even a big number of workers earn lower than the food poverty line of ZW$2 097.
As a result, many are not able to purchase food for their families enough for 21 days. Many depend on moonlighting and other income-generating projects that cannot be done now during the lockdown. In addition, some employers put workers on unpaid leave and some terminated employment contracts.

Those in the informal sector, which has the majority of employed persons amounting to around 2,2 million or 75,6%, have no social security like paid leave. They live from hand to mouth and without work they are facing starvation.

The majority of workers from formal and informal sectors are starving and in need of urgent help. To make matters worse prices of basic food items shot up steeply.

Although electricity is generally available, it is expensive and way beyond the reach of the majority. There are also shortages of essentials like mealie-meal and water making people break the lockdown rules in search of these. Many people in the suburbs are literally scavenging for food.

BM: What are your plans regarding companies that are temporarily laying off workers and those sending workers on forced leave?
PM: We expected government to issue a moratorium on retrenchments and other terminations of employment until we have an agreed post-Covid-19 social contract between business, labour and government.

The government has failed workers, maybe because many in government are shareholders in businesses. They therefore refrained from making decisions that affect their interests in companies. However, we are still pursuing our demands at TNF (Tripartite Negotiating Forum).

We are also going to take various measures against these unpatriotic employers who prioritise profits over national survival.

Firstly, we believe all the terminations or lay offs are unlawful because there cannot be a valid legal ground for terminations. Secondly, we are going to have sustained campaigns against such brands once we get out of the crisis. If a company dismisses workers during our time of great need, it simply means they despise workers.

We will also mobilise workers to choose alternative brands to purchase using salaries from employers who kept them at work. We are, therefore, compiling the list of all such employers and once we finish with this lethal enemy, we will for a long time face these brands.

Not even fake charity through some posturing called corporate social responsibility programmes will erase this from our black book. Such brands are going to pay dearly for neglecting workers and the nation during this period of need.

BM: Can you explain or comment on the issue of remuneration of workers during the lockdown?

PM: There is a general agreement amongst legal and industrial relations practitioners that employers are obliged to pay salaries during the lockdown. There are international conventions that protect wages such as the ILO Protection of Wages Convention 95. In addition, the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to fair labour practices and standards and payment of a fair and reasonable wage.

Furthermore, the Labour Act protects workers against unlawful deductions of salaries as well as guaranteed payment of wages during different forms of leave including special and sick leave. So, there are legal provisions securing workers wages during this period, but we always call for social dialogue to address any challenges each partner faces.

BM: What has been the impact of the lockdown on jobs?

PM: We are still assessing and will probably get the full scale of the carnage after the lockdown when restrictions are lifted and unions start holding meetings with employers and workers.

However, it is given that there would be massive job losses unless we craft equitable and inclusive public policies that protect and create jobs. ILO estimates that 6,7% of working hours translating to 195 million full-time jobs will be wiped out globally by second quarter of 2020.
ZNCC project that 25% of Zimbabwean formal jobs could be lost. Without doubt this crisis, which the ILO describes as the worst crisis since World War II, poses serious threats to jobs. We submit that we can reduce these projections drastically if we dialogue and come up with a post Covid-19 economic recovery that is focused on employment led growth.

BM: What must employers do to save jobs?

PM: The task to save jobs is not for one particular player in the labour market. Business, labour and government have responsibilities towards saving jobs. Only through collective action based on social dialogue and solidarity will we be able to save and create jobs.

Government has to come up with fiscal and monetary policy measures that assist businesses in most affected sectors such as tourism, transport and logistics, retail, informal sector and SMEs. These can get tax breaks, bailouts, suspended loan repayments and debt restructuring.

Employers, on their part, maybe tempted to come up with new models that result in job losses. We demand that they involve workers in dialogue around restructuring of the workplaces and new working methods.

During the lockdown employers should, in consultation with workers, consider working from home, shifts, teleworking and other forms that protects jobs. Employers should also invest in training, up-skilling and re-skilling of their workers for them to acquire necessary skills for the transition.

Workers also have to appreciate that post Covid-19 is going to transform the labour market. There will be new challenges especially new working methods. The epidemic may tend to speed up digitalisation and automation. Employers will try to minimise future risk of production disruption and also consolidate the digital distribution channels they experimented with during the lockdown.

BM: What do you think of the government-imposed minimum wage?

PM: lt is awfully inadequate and simply entrench slavery that has sadly become the hallmark of independent Zimbabwe industrial relations since the ill-informed adoption of Esap (Economic Structural Adjustment Programme).

During negotiations we had agreed with government for around US$238 converted at interbank rate. This would have given us around ZW$5 950 at current fixed official rate. This will still be below the Consumer basket, which we calculated to be around ZW$10 850 in February.

Now with the current price increases, it is way above that. This shows how the minimum wage is a pittance. We were only disrupted from vigorously challenging this because of the common enemy we now face, Covid-19.

BM: CZI recently said 82% of companies will not be able to pay salaries beyond one month, what is your reaction to this, what is your plan?

PM: We implore on businesses to understand the need for national solidarity that is required for us to go through this crisis. We believe many can pay April salaries as we look at how to move forward. Companies should therefore pay salaries more so now that some are operational. Those who are not genuinely able to pay should be known and assisted by the State, but these must be in the minority.

BM: Are your workers safe to return to work, in relation to the partial lockdown?

PM: The decision of government to open more workplaces without satisfying safety and health conditions may turn to be a disaster. Our assessment so far revealed that many workplaces are not safe. Workers have no personal protective equipment and clothing. Workers are using congested public transport.

In some mines, as many as seven workers stay in one room. Mining workers are susceptible to respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis and the lifting of the lockdown puts them into danger. The government succumbed to business demands and prioritised profits over lives.

We are going to demand safety of workers and have already demanded that unions be part of the inspectors. The partial lifting of lockdown goes against the WHO recommendations for Zimbabwe which has not yet met the preconditions set by the organisation.

BM: Some countries are giving out packages to workers and companies during the lockdown, have you engaged the government on this issue?

PM: We gave the government and employers our proposals, and now we have an agreed TNF Covid-19 response. However, our government does not treasure social dialogue. We are almost going past the lockdown and issues we proposed as interventions during the lockdown have not been implemented.

What the government has proposed so far is not sufficient to address the needs of business and citizens. It proposes to pay ZW$200 per person as cash transfers to the vulnerable. This is pathetically low, it only purchases a 10kg mealie-meal pack. We proposed a raft of measures to lessen the burden of citizens. These include cash transfers using food poverty line of ZW$1 863 or the ZW$2 500 minimum wage. This is not enough but better than the ZW$200.

We also suggested that government should subsidise or allocate foreign currency towards foods import and production so that prices of basic food items are reduced. The majority cannot afford electricity at the current tariffs and the government should subsidise for the poor suburbs. The same for LPG cooking gas as well as ensuring constant supply of water.

For businesses, we suggested the setting up of a fund to bail out the companies in distress. We also advised that government should use both fiscal and monetary policies to address the funding needs of businesses and informal sector players in order to ensure a quick recovery.

Unfortunately, dialogue and effective participation of citizens in policy formulation has not been accepted as important by the government. We are likely to have government making the same blunders it has always been making sinking us deeper into post Covid-19 crisis.

Currently, the government is giving workers and poor citizens a choice between Covid-19 deaths or starvation. Citizens must reject this and demand prevention against both Covid-19 deaths and starvation. Protection of citizens against harm and preventable deaths is the central role of government. Zimbabwe can reprioritise its expenditures and ensure we put resources towards health services, income security and food security of all.

We also need international humanitarian assistance and a multi-sectoral resource mobilisation task force which must be composed of respected and trusted local leaders for us to build the lost confidence.

Already, many are questioning the selection criteria and disbursements of the social assist. Without transparency we will not be able to mobilise sufficient international support to complement national resources.