Devastating crises dampen Workers’ Day

AS the country commemorated Workers’ Day last Friday, most employees had little to celebrate as the holiday came at a time of worsening economic crisis and severely eroded incomes, while the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening to deal a fatal blow to already decimated livelihoods.

Kudzai Kuwaza

International Workers’ Day, also known as Workers’ Day or Labour Day in some countries and often referred to as May Day, is a celebration of the working class by the global labour movement every year on May 1.

The day has become a stark reminder of how President Emmerson Mnangagwa has dismally failed to create the jobs he promised when he rose to power on the back of a military coup in 2017. Contrary to Mnangagwa’s promises, unemployment figures have grown, with more workers being thrown into extreme poverty since he took over from long-time ruler Robert Mugabe.

The job losses have continued unabated in a deteriorating economy characterised by a crippling liquidity crunch, fuel and foreign currency shortages, low capacity utilisation and runaway inflation which stood at 676,39% as of March. The income and savings of workers have been decimated by inflation, which shot through the roof after the government banned the use of the multi-currency regime and made the local unit the sole legal tender through Statutory Instrument 142 of 2019 in June last year.

Only last year, at least 210 333 jobs were made redundant, according to a 2019 Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) labour survey.

In terms of distribution, Harare province had the highest proportion of the retrenched population at 40,5% followed by Mashonaland West (12,6%) and Mashonaland East (9,6%). Manicaland and Mashonaland Central had 8,7% and 6,5% respectively while Matabeleland North (2,7%) had the lowest.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives globally, has plunged the country’s battered economy into untold turmoil.

The Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce paints a grim picture of the job losses that will be triggered by the global pandemic.

In a recent report titled Sustainable and Flexible Economic Interventions to Address Covid-19, the business membership organisation said a quarter of the country’s formal jobs and three quarters of the country’s informal jobs will be wiped out as a result of the pandemic.

“Workforce will be made redundant as some businesses will not be able to adapt to the effects of Covid-19,” the ZNCC wrote in its report.

“There is going to be loss of employment, 25% of formal jobs will be lost and 75% of casual/temporary jobs will be lost as businesses lay off workers given the sharp contractions in many sectors.”

The report noted that the tourism sector will be the hardest hit with nearly 25% of workers in the sector being made redundant. The manufacturing sector is also expected to record a significant number of layoffs.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Japhet Moyo (pictured) notes that the fate of the worker has been plunged into further uncertainty with the advent of Covid-19.

“The coronavirus pandemic has just added more misery to a constituency than has been reeling under job insecurity, uncertainty and loss of lifetime savings. Experts predict a job loss bloodbath in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus outbreak,” Moyo said.

However, he points out that despite the numerous challenges the worker faces, it is important to commemorate May Day.

“There is every reason to commemorate this special day as workers. Workers have been dismissed, killed and jailed fighting for the rights that we enjoy today. Even when we face a strong pushback from neoliberal quarters, we still have to commemorate what we have fought for all the years,” Moyo reflected.
“We have made considerable gains over the years that working men and women need to celebrate. More collective bargaining agreements have been concluded over the years giving workers social justice at the workplace. But we also have losses in job security and frightening inequality.”

The loss in job security pointed out by Moyo was brought into sharp focus by a recent letter by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube to international financial institutions early last month begging for funding.

Ncube’s letter painted a grim picture, projecting that the country’s economy will contract between 15 to 20% this year amid deepening levels of poverty. The government’s stunning economic outlook does not bode well for workers already reeling under paltry salaries that cannot sustain basic livelihoods with prices of basic commodities skyrocketing.

Mounting economic challenges make it near-impossible for Zimbabwean workers to celebrate May Day, according to business consultant Simon Kayereka.

“There is nothing for the Zimbabwean worker to celebrate. The economy is stuttering, unemployment is high, hunger is stalking the communities and there is no safety net or savings to talk about,” Kayereka said.

“Now with Covid-19, the future of the worker is certainly threatened in all aspects, more so as the economy continues to shrink with a currency that has no store of value and an industrial policy that has not been implemented.”

Banks such as Standard Chartered and Cabs have retrenched some of their workforce, adding to the long list of the unemployed in Zimbabwe which, according to the International Labour Organisation, stands at more than 90%.

The job losses are a continuation of the Mugabe era when unemployment became rife as a result of massive economic decline. More than 2 800 workers were retrenched by 73 companies in 2017 for various reasons ranging from restructuring to viability challenges. A total of 8 843 workers were laid off in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, a total of 5 333 workers were retrenched and this does not include those who were affected by the July 17 Supreme Court ruling that year which allowed employers to dismiss workers on three months’ notice.

In 2016, there were 3 510 workers who were retrenched, worsening the unemployment level.

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