Tuesday, April 30, 2013

May Day! May Day!... Workers Neglected

May Day! May Day! . . .workers neglected

Tuesday, 30 April 2013 00:00
Sifelani Tsiko
Zimbabwe Herald

THAT the labour movement in Zimbabwe has lost its power, sparkle and membership is not debatable, the question is who or what is responsible and the far-reaching implications this has had in fostering wage inequalities in the country.

The template of opinions is centred on the abuse of workers by a plethora of pretenders, masquerading as unionists, who have used the workers to catapult them into political office.

From Morgan Tsvangirai to Wellington Chibebe, the story is the same, abusing the workers to climb up the political ladder.

Other opinions vary from company closures around the country due to sanctions-induced economic hardships to the shift towards market-driven capitalism over socialist-leaning policies of the early 1980s, technological advancement leading to the decline in the labour-intensive methods of production, increased meddling in politics and the Government’s indifference to labour issues.

The biggest undoing of the labour movement has been the evident lethargic leadership within the labour movement itself.

This year, ZCTU says it has been forced to cancel Workers Day commemorations in 17 of its 36 districts.

At independence in 1980, the movement had as its base a formal sector working class of around 1,2 million, which grew to 1,5 million in 1999.

Labour experts say this constituted approximately 10 percent and later 12 percent of the total population.

The situation is now different and the formal working class has shrunk considerably to figures of which are not known or have not been updated.

May Day has long been a rallying point for workers across the country to address their concerns.

It has been an important official holiday in Zimbabwe that gives workers an important platform to press for improved working conditions and more importantly matters related to wages.

In the past May Day celebrations would typically feature elaborate rallies, march pasts and worker processions.

But now things have changed and the May Day commemorations are no longer part of the national conscience.

In the 1980s, prior to the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme years, the day used to command considerable attention from the entire business community, Government and politicians.

In Zimbabwe, May Day has been reduced to a battleground for attacking rival unions and of course, a platform to compete for membership.

Workers’ issues have taken a back seat as the beleaguered labour movement is consumed with infighting and survival.

Membership to local Zimbabwean unions means increasing the kitty for the union leaders with nothing substantial trickling to the struggling workers.

Divisions have been the major hallmark of the Zimbabwean labour movement in recent years, a development that has weakened its sting to levels that have never been seen before.

The ZCTU says it is holding this year’s commemorations under the theme: “Workers Under Siege, Organise and Move on” at Gwanzura Stadium while its rival, a splinter labour group calling itself the Concerned Affiliates of the ZCTU will mark the day on their own at the “upmarket” Raylton Sports Club in Harare.

The Japhet Moyo-led ZCTU says it will use the day to push the Government and private sector to adopt the poverty datum line as the minimum wage while the Raymond Majongwe-led faction will mark the day under the theme: “Fighting for Poverty Datum Line, Worker Safety and Empowerment” and will also push for US$550 minimum wage linked to the Poverty Datum Line.

The divisions are so sharp and the Zimbabwe labour movement is going against the tide of global calls for unity and solidarity.

Since 1904, when people started celebrating May 1 across the world, workers’ rights activists have been calling on workers to be united and to stand together to fight the powers that seek to widen the gap between rich and poor.

The labour unions have turned their backs to the most pressing demands of the struggling workers in the country — decent pay, decent working conditions, housing and access to basic needs.

Many workers feel betrayed and disenfranchised by the labour movement which has been infiltrated by some power-hungry individuals who see labour unions as a powerful springboard into politics.

Most workers told The Herald that they are angry at the lies, the betrayal, and are angry that socialist voices in the labour movement have been infiltrated by neo-liberals who are bent on siphoning whatever subscriptions there are for their own selfish ends.

Workers say they put in long hours, with little pay and are frustrated by a very complicated mechanism of seeking compensation for work-related injuries or wrongful dismissal.

They also say that greedy union leaders who are easily compromised by unscrupulous employers have also worsened their miseries.

A huge backlog of cases at the labour court means a single suit can drag on for months or even years, while some workers are likely to be retrenched or die before the settlement.

This has been quite frustrating for most aggrieved workers in the country.

Apart from economic and political issues, the HIV/Aids epidemic has been one of the biggest headaches for labour.

HIV/Aids has had serious implications for labour and business and workers say there is need for a co-ordinated response to the epidemic by organisations representing these two groups.

Workers want the country’s labour movement to play a more proactive and leading role in strategies to combat HIV/Aids rather spending time fighting for power.

The fate of Zimbabwe’s labour movement has been its sharp appetite for politics at the expense of worker interest. Economic problems facing the country have also added to the woes.

Without a strong countervailing force of a strong and united organized labour, corporations and wealthy elites are now on a “roller-coaster” — advancing their own interests and influencing major political, social and economic policies unfettered.

The Zimbabwean labour movement is in a crisis and it is at its weakest ever since the country attained its independence 33 years ago.

The biggest casualty of a weak and divided labour movement, is probably the ‘stinking’ wage gap between the most paid and the lowly paid workers in the country.

Some labour analysts say the decline in organised labour’s power and membership has played a larger role in fostering increased wage inequality in Zimbabwe than is generally thought.

A national salary survey report by the human resource firm Stallone Consultancy in February this year shows that the salary gap between top earners and the lowest paid workers in Zimbabwe has widened with company executives raking in monthly salaries of up to US$15 000 while shop floor workers are taking home US$200 or less.

In one case, it was reported that a bank was paying a bonus of US$140 000 to one of its executives while another company was reportedly paying its directors quarterly bonuses of between US$30 000 and US$40 000 while workers at the bottom had nothing.

A Harare-based labour analyst said the decline of organised labour held down wages in union and non-union workplaces alike.
Many non-union employers — especially decades ago, when unions represented more than 30 percent of the private sector work force — raised wages to help avert the threat of union organising.

Moreover, the labour analyst argued that when unions were larger and had a far greater voice in politics and society, they played a more influential role in advocacy on wages across the economy, for instance, in pushing to raise the minimum wage.

“In the 1980s, up until 1990, when the labour movement was organised, unions were often prominent voices for equity, not just for their members, but for all workers,” he says.

“Union decline marks an erosion of the moral economy and its underlying distributional norms.

Wage inequality in the non-union sector increased as a result.

The introduction of economic reforms — Esap even worsened this and led to the decline of labour power.”

The labour expert noted that the decline of unions is part of a common account of rising inequality that is often contrasted with a market explanation that includes technological change, company closures and a slump in foreign trade.

He further argues that the market explanation usually understates the role of organised labour’s decline on increased inequality.

As Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in marking the international Workers Day, workers can only hope that labour movements in the country will continue to press for better pay for the worst paid and use all channels to help reduce the gap between the well paid and the worst paid.

The complete collapse of unions would have devastating consequences.

The labour movement has to put its act together and play a crucial role in advancing economic justice in the workplace.

Zimbabwean workers need a strong and vibrant labour movement that focuses more on workers’ rights — advancing justice at the workplace and expanding worker opportunities through promoting various empowerment strategies.

Politics is a hard hat area and when labour ventures into the murky political waters, they only have themselves to blame.

Perhaps what is more important, is for labour to have skilled negotiators who will engage the Government to help improve the working conditions of workers.

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